LANSING, MICH. -- After the 1984 presidential campaign, Democratic candidates around the country ran under the shadow of what might be called "the Mondale syndrome." That is, after their nominee, Walter Mondale, told voters he would have to raise their taxes and then went down to a landslide defeat, no sensible Democrat would risk letting "the T-word" cross his lips.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George Bush played on "the Mondale syndrome" with his own flat pledge of "no new taxes."
Now, in the wake of the 1988 campaign, Democrats in the 1990 off-year elections are being guided by what might be called "the Dukakis syndrome." They have learned the hard way, at the expense of another badly beaten presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, not to let an opponent paint the voters' impression of you before you can do it yourself.
Gary Bachula, Michigan Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard's campaign manager in his bid for a third term, was explaining recently why his campaign this summer ran television ads attacking Blanchard's challenger -- Michigan Senate Republican leader John Engler, a man much less known to voters than the governor -- long before the traditional Labor Day kickoff.
"George Bush dispelled the old theory in 1988," Bachula said, "when he defined Mike Dukakis before he defined himself."
The "old theory" of which Bachula spoke held that a well-known candidate, especially an incumbent, should strive to remain above the fray, touting his own accomplishments and treating his usually less-known opponent as if he didn't exist. If he violated this theory, he supposedly did so at his own peril, risking the wrath of the fair-minded electorate.
But in "defining" the lesser-known Dukakis, then-Vice President Bush painted the Massachusetts governor as a knee-jerk liberal somehow lacking in patriotism and soft on crime and defense -- before Dukakis could sell himself in favorable terms.
Not only did Dukakis fail to persuade the voters about his virtues; by turning the other cheek and letting Bush's attacks go largely unanswered he permitted the negative allegations to stick. As a result, two new pieces of conventional wisdom were born that are being observed diligently throughout the country this fall in XTC one campaign after another. They are:
* As early as you can, define your opponent in negative terms and don't let him define you the same way. In other words, get your foe before he or she gets you.
* Don't turn the other cheek the way Dukakis did. Give as good as you get and remember that, according to another old political axiom that still holds true, a charge unanswered is likely to be a charge believed.
In place of the conventional political wisdom of the recent past that held that a candidate had to establish his own virtues with the voters before telling them how bad his opponent was, the modus operandi now is to come out of the corner with both fists pumping, on the notion that an opponent can't knock you down if he's lying flat on his back, or at least covering up to protect himself.
This technique actually was demonstrated effectively as far back as 1986, by Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston in his California re-election race with Republican Ed Zschau. Zschau went through a bitter primary fight that left scars and woke up the very day after the primary to slashing television attacks by the Cranston campaign. It took him weeks to get off the canvas, but even so he almost unseated Cranston.
After the 1988 presidential campaign, the voter disgust with American political campaigns that was so widely expressed led to hopes that a backlash against the practitioners of sleaze would lead to cleaner campaigns. Instead, so far at least, the result has been more and more of the same, with the operative theory remaining that voters may dislike negative campaigning, but it works.
In large part because of the Dukakis experience, candidates of ++ both parties are answering back this fall, rather than turning the other cheek in the Dukakis style, assuring that the low level of a campaign begun by an attack by one candidate will be sustained or even lowered a notch or two by the responding candidate.
Calling your opponent a disreputable cur is nothing new in politics, to be sure. It is a practice as old as the republic. The difference now is that the charges are magnified by television and mass mailings, and packaged in the manner of junk food in 30-second commercials that are strong on negative impressions and weak on reliable information about a targeted candidate.
In Michigan's senatorial campaign, for example, Republican challenger Rep. Bill Schuette in one ad has tried to link his opponent, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, with Michigan's other Democratic senator, Donald Riegle, one of the "Keating Five" of the savings-and-loan fiasco, in "cozy deals [and] the S&L scandals," although there is no S&L connection between the two senators.