Dukakis' Embrace of 'L Word' Draws Quizzical Response With PM-Political Rdp Bjt
WILLIAM M. WELCH
Nov. 01, 1988
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Michael Dukakis has embraced the ''L word'' after weeks of avoiding it, and Republicans moved swiftly to exploit what they say is a misstep.
''After months of denying he was a liberal, Dukakis conceded that he is one,'' George Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater said. ''This is worse than a flip-flop. This is a gaffe bigger than putting himself in that tank.''
''Miracle of miracles,'' Bush sarcastically said.
With a week to go and facing long odds, Dukakis on Sunday said: ''I'm a liberal, in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy.''
It was a statement some had been urging Dukakis to make, a defense of values as well as a political point of view long associated with Democratic Party successes of old - and Democratic failures of late.
But it was also viewed by Democrats themselves as a high-risk move by a candidate who trails nearly everywhere and has little choice but to roll the dice.
Dukakis spokesman Mark Gearan said Dukakis made no mistake. He was advancing his ''I'm on your side'' argument, Gearan said, and asserting that it is he and not Bush who is in the tradition of those popular Democratic presidents.
Dukakis had seemed to shy away from the word previously.
In his second debate with Bush, Dukakis quipped: ''If I had a dollar, George, for every time you used that label, I'd qualify for one of those tax breaks for the rich that you want to give away.''
After one debate statement by Bush, Dukakis told the vice president: ''I didn't hear the word 'liberal' or 'left' one time. I thank you for that.''
Dukakis has repeatedly asserted that such labels are meaningless and said he has conservative instincts as well. He points to his balanced budgets in Massachusetts as proof.
In his interview on ABC's ''Nightline'' last week, Dukakis said, ''Bush is trying to misuse that label in a way which suggests that I'm somebody who doesn't have a set of values.''
Any reluctance to embrace the word ''liberal'' can be understood with a glance at recent polls, which suggest it's no longer fashionable. Only 15 percent or so of the electorate accept that label to describe themselves - even though many more may take ''liberal'' positions on specific issues.
A CBS-New York Times poll conducted Oct. 8-10 was typical. It found 17 percent saying they were liberal, 34 percent saying they were conservative, and 43 percent identifying themselves as moderate.
President Reagan, whose eight years in office have seen a growth in voter identification with conservatives, has been hammering Dukakis with the liberal cudgel. In three speeches in Ohio one day recently, he used the word 50 times.
The Republicans have used a handful of assertions to give a negative connotation to liberalism and Dukakis. They depict him as weak on defense, permissive toward crime, likely to raise taxes.
''George Bush succeeded in defining what a liberal is, in the most unflattering light possible,'' said Mark Mellman, a pollster for Democratic candidates. ''Unfortunately to a lot of people right now to be a liberal means to be in favor of furloughs and in favor of higher taxes and so on.
''Those of us who call ourselves liberals, I think, would suggest that has nothing whatever to do with being a liberal and that's very much a distortion of what that ideological perspective is all about,'' Mellman added.
Dukakis on Sunday offered his own definition. He said liberalism means ''standing up for average Americans'' - while also balancing budgets and recognizing fiscal constraints.
As a three-term governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis in fact was not known as a liberal. He was a moderate and a reformer in a state with a long liberal tradition.
Liberals there assailed him for not doing enough on welfare, social services and the homeless. As governor, he faced Democratic primary challengers from the left as well as the right.
Former House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., once the leader of liberal Democratic politics, last month disputed Bush's charge that Dukakis was liberal.
''Absolutely not,'' O'Neill said. ''He's progressive.''
But Massachusetts politics is not the standard for politics elsewhere, and even Massachusetts liberals acknowledge that.
''Being a centrist in Massachusetts makes him a liberal in general,'' said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who often opposed Dukakis from the left in their own state.
Frank said Dukakis is a liberal in the ''broad sense'' - that he sees a role for ''a vigorous public sector'' to help attain social goals.
Atwater suggested Dukakis might have had an easier time of it if he had accepted the liberal label earlier, and then spent time defining it in more favorable terms.
''He's made a tough task for himself - to come in here at the end and try to redefine what liberal means,'' Atwater said.
Democratic national chairman Paul Kirk said liberalism means ''a prudent, positive, practical role for government, helping people.'' He suggested Dukakis might have moved sooner to defuse the issue.
''I'm one who happens to believe that as soon as the opening pitch is thrown you take a crack at it,'' Kirk said. ''... He might have done it earlier, but it's not too late.''