And that was about it. The expectation had been that in the time between his first announcement, Dukakis would add flesh to his skeletal candidacy, that in his formal announcement the governor would at least begin to describe a specific national approach, that he would get beyond the “what” and start to address the “how.” But nowhere did Dukakis offer specifics. This speech, like the last, touched on issues only in the most general sense: a commitment to opportunity, to a clean environment, to world peace, opposition to AIDS and to funding of the contras. And one of half a dozen Democratic (or, for that matter Republican) candidates might have given much the same speech. “It was just the same old stuff,” said one strong Dukakis supporter. “The son of Greek immigrants, economic opportunity, the need to not just enforce the law but also respect it. It was one of those speeches where you don’t really listen to the words.” Adds another, “There was definitely something missing.”
Dukakis’s Massachusetts history, of course, is one of his running on a vague promise of managerially competent, scrupulously honest government, imbued with a middling progressive ethic. And against bumbling conservatives like Ed King or George Kariotis, that has sufficed. But almost all the governor’s Democratic Party opponents can make an equal claim to integrity and competence; in this field, Dukakis’s time-honored approach hardly gives his candidacy critical mass.
Compounding the problem for Dukakis is his near-total lack of emotional appeal. The governor is no doubt a good and decent and honest man, but an inspirational figure he is not. Whereas candidates like Jesse Jackson or Joe Biden can give words verbal wings and take audiences soaring up dizzying new peaks, Dukakis’s speaking style resembles a car with chains trying to assault a slippery mountain pass: plodding progress but oh, the mechanical clunking. Indeed, his Manchester performance was so thoroughly wooden and expressionless that Dukakis risked being upstaged in the passion department by the interpreter signing the speech for the deaf.
In the long run, that type of speech promised little for Dukakis. “Let’s face it, his style has not been spirited. It is low-key and cautious,” says one supporter. “It didn’t really move the world, did it?” commented another.
That’s not to suggest that an inspirational style is essential for a successful presidential candidacy, or that this race will be won on charisma alone, or even that a flat performance at this stage will particularly hurt Dukakis. But what it does suggest is that, unable to distinguish himself emotively, the governor must find some other way to set himself apart from the pack. Other long-shot candidates, like former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt or former Delaware governor Pierre DuPont, have managed to attract media attention and some public interest by proferring public-policy proposals that move beyond the realm of consensus. But so far, a persistent complaint about Dukakis is that he seems unwilling to deal in anything but platitudes. For those looking for real substance, for a hunt about how Dukakis would be different, Wednesday’s speech, with its bloodless generalities, simply didn’t make the grade. Instead, it raised larger questions.
One political observer (and Dukakis supporter) puts it this way: “No one will remember this particular speech. The question is: does he understand what his weakness is?”