Washington -- AS THE various prospective Democratic presidential candidates warm up for the 1992 campaign, they make clear they are not going to let George Bush do to them what he did to Michael Dukakis in 1988. That is, they say they won't let Bush get away withr that they are soft on crime, as Bush did in constantly referring to the notorious Willie Horton rape-after-prison-furlough case.
The latest 1992 hopeful to indicate he won't turn the other cheek is Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who told an AFL-CIO conference here the other day that Bush has practiced "the politics of fear" and now warns of racial quotas in hiring practices "just as he was proud of that Willie Horton ad that messed up Michael Dukakis." Earlier, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, another presidential aspirant, served notice that if Bush and the Republicans try to "Hortonize" him, "I'll hit them back right between the eyes."
The only declared Democratic candidate, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who says unconvincingly to some that he's not running, also have sought to blow the whistle on Bush's use of racial division as a political tactic, specifically referring to the 1988 Republican uses of the Willie Horton case.
Bush himself has tried disingenuously to claim that he never used "any Willie Horton ad" in 1988. It is true that an ad showing a photo of Horton, who is black and who raped a Maryland woman while he was on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, was authored not by the Bush national campaign but by a local, allegedly independent Bush group.
However, Bush himself frequently mentioned the Horton case and his national campaign prominently ran a television ad clearly based on the case, showing prisoners leaving jail through a revolving gate. As they did, a narrator intoned that as governor, Dukakis' "revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape and many are still at large." The reference, obviously, was not to some unidentified jaywalker.
All the Democratic White House aspirants have good reason to be concerned about being "Hortonized," though in a subtler fashion, if they run against Bush. It has been made patently clear that Bush prefers having the racially divisive issue of quotas for use in the 1992 election to accepting a Republican-crafted compromise on the pending bill dealing with civil rights in the workplace that most Democrats support.
But the eventual Democratic nominee may have just as much or more to worry about in being "Mondale-ized" in 1992 as "Hortonized." In the 1984 campaign, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans demolished Walter Mondale's slim chances by jumping all over his ill-conceived acceptance-speech notification that he would raise taxes.
Mondale said they were necessary to get out of the deficit created by Reagan's reckless fiscal policies. Republicans quickly labeled him just another "tax-and-spend Democrat" who wanted more taxpayer money for liberal giveaway programs -- despite Mondale's specific caveat that funds raised would go to reducing the deficit.
Democratic hopefuls who are now getting around to accusing Bush of neglecting dire domestic needs may inevitably be setting themselves up for the same "tax-and-spend Democrat" handle that the GOP has so effectively used against them through the Nixon-Reagan-Bush years. Rockefeller particularly, in promoting massively expensive health-care and child-care policies without saying how he will raise the money for them, appears vulnerable to being Mondale-ized.
A Rockefeller aide, defending her boss' approach, says he believes he must persuade voters of the imperative of those proposals, and their desirability, before addressing the thorny matter of financing them. The problem, however, for Rockefeller and other Democratic hopefuls with ambitious ideas for coping with the domestic challenges being ignored by Bush, is that the Republicans are not likely to give them the luxury of making their case before the charges that they are all the same old "tax-and-spend Democrats" come flying at them. Getting "Mondale-ized" can prove to be just as troublesome to them in 1992 as getting "Hortonized."