Every so often I rummage through some of my old writings to see how far I’ve come, or, in some cases, haven’t come. I came across this little ditty of a piece I wrote after the presidential election of 1988. If you are wondering what the reasons are for my newfound sense of pragmatism and, more to the point, my recent critical stance of many of my progressive colleagues, just read this piece and you’ll know why. With the exception of correcting some grammatical errors, it remains largely intact, ostensibly the same piece it was when I wrote it more than twenty-two years ago.
While it may be tempting for progressives to conclude, as I did, that the reason for the Dukakis loss in '88 was mainly do to his inability to fight fire with fire, a character flaw that would later be shared with another Massachusetts liberal, John Kerry, in '04, I now feel that the main reason for his loss, and others like him, was and is due to good old fashioned error selection. When Democrats pick candidates that simply don't do well across the broad stroke of American voters, they get their butts handed to them; when they manage to find someone who cuts across all demographics - as they did in '92 with Clinton - they win. Obama's success or failure will rest squarely with how well he reads up on history and adopts his strategy to it.
Oh, and regarding the Mets’ analogy, I think it goes without saying they never did make it back to the World Series the following year. Like the Democrats, they had to regroup and rebuild. Sometimes the hardest thing you have to do is move on.
P.S. I added the Dukakis tank picture here. The internet wasn't availbale back then. Al Gore hadn't invented it yet.
READ MY LIPS!
Far from unseating Reaganomics in America, the Democrats impotence on a national level virtually killed any chance liberalism had in 1988 – perhaps forever. Welcome to the jungle, son of Ronzo!
By Peter W. Fegan
In a sad sort of way I knew it was over for Michael Dukakis when I saw Howard Johnson take a called third strike in the National League Championship Series clincher. The analogy was striking. Despite an apparent abundance of ammunition at his disposal, the Duke stood meekly by while his opponent, George Bush, ignobly fired pitch after pitch. And when Dukakis did manage to take the bat off his shoulder, the results were predictable. In the end, notwithstanding a late rally, the score wasn’t even close: opportunists 4, inane 0. A clean sweep. But you don’t get off that easy. Oh, no. You’ll have to sit through the sorted details. And brother, are there ever some sorted details.
Liberalism in this country may or may not be a dirty word. Yet Dukakis’ reaction to it left many with a sense he didn’t believe in it. Without a base to call his own, he allowed the Republicans to define the campaign issues. In short, George Bush called the shots; Michael Dukakis magnanimously went along. Jim Baker and the Republicans could hardly believe their good fortune.
Whether it was the Willie Horton / Massachusetts furlough ads or Bush’s undeniable charge that Dukakis was and is a card-carrying member of the ACLU, the negative bashing went unchecked until it became too late. By the time Dukakis woke up and started fighting back, he was trailing badly in all the polls. The damage was irreversible. One poll (ABC-Harris) had him down as many as 12 points!
Conservatives in this country love to tout – nay gloat – at the swing to the right among the electorate over the past eight years. They’d have you believe that George Bush’s victory was signed, sealed and delivered the moment they labeled Dukakis a liberal. True enough, it didn’t help the Democrats’ chances any, and it wasn’t the sort of strategy they would’ve preferred to employ. Given the choice, they would’ve preferred to debate the real issues of the campaign: pollution, drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, foreign policy, the continued enrichment of the elite ruling class, etc…
Certainly the polls taken immediately after the Democratic convention in Atlanta seemed to suggest that the country was willing to at least look at if not deal with them. But Jim Baker and the GOP had other plans. They shifted gears and threw the onus back into Dukakis’ lap with the old “L” word. And since for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction – or so we’re told in physics – all that was left to do was sit back and watch for the response. If Dukakis stood his ground and countered, Bush was finished. Astonishingly enough, though, he did not. Instead the Dukakis camp ignored the warning signs from every one of its advisors and proceeded as though all was well. When Dukakis was cornered on the subject of his liberal stances, he acted more apologetic and embarrassed than indifferent, preferring to talk, instead, about competence over ideology. The American people weren’t buying the seeming subterfuge, and an early ten-point lead quickly evaporated.
In an op-ed piece, appearing in The Village Voice, titled “Sleazy Does It: How to Run a Really Bush Campaign” Leslie Savan hits it out of the ballpark so to speak when she writes, “How the Bush people transformed their candidate in just ten months from a 90-pound weakling into a bullying grandfather is one of the great success stories of modern advertising.” In deed it might be the greatest of all time.
Ronald Reagan was one thing. His tall stature and almost majestic-like appearance were easy commodities to market. Bush presented a far greater challenge to his promoters (er, staff). Left with little in the way of positive attributes in their arsenal, Baker and his people set out to check every Dukakis advantage with a blatant negative assault, the likes of which haven’t been seen in this country since the Nixon / Humphrey election twenty years ago.
The techniques – avoiding the press, and when that didn’t work, bullying them (Hello Dan Rather, wherever you are!), cuddling babies, mega flag waving, running misleading ads showing pollution in Boston harbor and convicted criminals being paroled from prison – were masterful in their conception and proved highly effective. But they worked in large part based on two factors.
First, there has always existed in America a racist element that worked, however unwittingly, against equality. Call it, if you will, a fear of the black man rising up against his oppressors. Those who play up to that fear, as Bush did with the Willie Horton ads, will almost surely succeed, especially in those areas where the fear is deepest: the South. In many parts of that region some people are still fighting the Civil War. Add to that fear the label liberal and you effectively kill off any chance your opponent has of gaining momentum and building a base of support.
But the greatest and most damning factor the Republicans can’t even take credit for. For while the Bush campaign may have run their sleazy ads and misleading innuendos, it was still left to the Dukakis camp to set the record straight. Countless times, whenever Bush ran his mealy mouth, Dukakis had the opportunity to shut it. For instance, on the issue of furloughs, Dukakis waited until two weeks before the election to remind the electorate that, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan himself had signed into law a state furlough program not unlike the one employed by Massachusetts. And, as a result of just such a program, a murder was committed – by a white man no less! Too little, too late. Perhaps Shakespeare had us pegged pretty well when he wrote Marc Antony’s little speech in Julius Caesar. Counting on the voters to figure out who you are and what you stand for, when you can’t even define it yourself, smacks of wishful thinking in the extreme!
Of course there were other instances where Dukakis’ incompetence cost his dearly. The flag-waving and subsequent wrapping became the central theme for the Republicans throughout the campaign and should have provided the Democrats with the impetus needed to brand Bush as the vacuous fraud he is. Instead what we got was the typical knee-jerk reaction. We saw a patriotic George propping up babies in front of old glory, while iron Mike was ridding shotgun in a tank. The image was far from laudable; in deed it was pathetically humorous. Even I couldn’t stop laughing. The result of that fiasco was that George Bush came off looking like Captain America, while Mike Dukakis looked like Cap’n Crunch!
I could go on and on, but by now you have it pretty much “wrapped” in a nutshell. Never before in politics has one man’s refusal to listen to even the most rudimentary advice led to such a resounding defeat. And the tragic thing about this whole campaign is that the tactics used by George Bush in 1988 will return in 1992. Why? Because they work, that’s why. I’m afraid we’re going to have to get used to the negative ads and mudslinging, insulting though they might be to our intelligence. We’re also going to have to get used to the prospect of smaller and smaller voter turnout. With such negativity in the world of politics, is it any wonder people are staying home rather than exorcising their most basic of constitutional rights. Didn’t we hear all too frequently from folks we knew and trusted, “What’s the use in voting? They’re all the same anyway!”
Perhaps I’ve inadvertently stumbled onto the real strategy of the Republicans in this campaign. Maybe they figured if they created enough voter angst and apathy, they’d sneak their man in. Sometimes in the absence of substantiation, a little bullshit can go a long way. Certainly it will go a lot further than the truth, especially if the truth is unimportant or perhaps even dangerous to you. Sounds too incredible, you say? Well, perhaps. I guess if the Mets could lose to the Dodgers, than anything is possible.
But time does heal all wounds and, hopefully, provides a chance for redemption. The Mets will be back next year. Keith Hernandez will field and Ron darling will pitch the way both know how and the best team will advance to the World Series. Likewise, the Democrats will get their shot again, though in their case they will have to wait another four years. Let’s hope next time they listen to their scouts!