The Democrats An Indelicate Balance

In picking Bentsen, Dukakis looked right and needlessly blindsided Jackson

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The first principle of vice-presidential selection is to find a fellow who can win his own state (the bigger, the better) and not hurt you elsewhere. Safe, practical politics. Michael Dukakis has often said his first principle in selecting a running mate was more exalted: to find the person, apart from himself of course, who would make a first-rate President. A noble, if slightly disingenuous sentiment.

But in choosing Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen to share space on his campaign button, Dukakis took a deeply calculated risk, an atypical gamble. Bentsen is not a shoo-in to win Texas, George Bush's adopted state. He could hurt the ticket by being perceived as an affront to the blacks and progressives who backed Jesse Jackson and by sullying the PAC-free sheen of the squeaky-clean Dukakis. And though he is greatly respected in the corridors of the Capitol, Bentsen does not top the list when people daydream about the ideal President of the United States.

For Dukakis, who has been likened to a walking pocket calculator, the choice was shrewd. If Bentsen wins Texas, Dukakis may win the whole enchilada; since Texas became a state in 1845, no Democrat has won without it. Bush will now have to spend time and money defending the South. And, with this once safe electoral base threatened, Bush cannot afford to shrug off a loss in California.

In measuring the odds, however, Dukakis did not adequately consider one very large and unpredictable variable: Jesse Jackson. The gray and proper Bentsen would not exactly excite the 7 million who voted for the "rainbow coalition." That was understood. But then the sorry-I-missed-you phone call hit Jesse where he is most vulnerable: his sense of pride, his rightful insistence that he has earned respect. The missed connection permitted him to play to his greatest strength: attracting the media eye. For days after the announcement, Jackson's parade of grievances and implied reprisals shifted the soft-spoken Bentsen off the front pages.

The Texas Tory and the Brookline Bantam make a sitcom-like odd couple. Bentsen is more Bush's twin than Dukakis'. Bentsen supports the contras; Dukakis reviles them. Dukakis mocks the policies of Reaganomics; Bentsen backed them. Bentsen boosts new missiles; Dukakis denigrates them.

The choice of Bentsen was something of a surprise; so too the generally laudatory reaction. He carries some campaign liabilities: his age and general lack of zip, as well as a silky style that makes it hard for Middle-Class Mike to depict Silver-Spoon George as a country-club elitist. Bentsen's willingness to wallow in contributions from those with business before his Finance Committee makes it tougher for Dukakis to exploit the Reagan Administration's "sleaze factor."

But Dukakis, as Bentsen pointed out, "wasn't looking for a clone of Mike Dukakis." He was looking for someone who would give the ticket balance, and by choosing one of the most probusiness, prodefense Southerners around, he got it. "It makes our problems much more difficult," says Republican John Connally, a former Texas Governor. Bentsen helps shield Dukakis from the liberal label Bush is trying to pin on him and makes the ticket more appealing to the Bubba vote: conservative whites who defected to Ronald Reagan.

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