Welcome to entry number seven in my series about the biggest electoral losers of American history. For previous installments, I invite you to lament over the sad fate of Horace Greeley (1872), the tragedy of McGovern (1972), the woe of Parker (1904), the bad karma of Landon (1936), the sorrow of Dole (1996) and the temporary insanity of Mondale (1984). Today’s story is a direct continuation of Mondale’s, because you can’t understand the election of 1988 without understanding the one that came before it.
In fact, insanity is a good word. I’ve heard insanity defined as “doing exactly the same thing as before and expecting a different result.” If that’s a viable definition, the Democratic Party in 1988 fits it. It’s clear that the venerable old party of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and the Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was moribund by the end of the Reagan era. After suffering two epic blowouts in a row–Carter in 1980 and Mondale, Carter’s former Vice-President, in 1984–the party learned exactly nothing from these defeats, and in fact barreled up to the bar to take it in the kisser a third time. The tragedy of Dukakis’s loss to the first George Bush lies not, as in the case of Parker or Landon, in the fact that it was a Quixotic contest against hopeless odds. It lies in how utterly predictable it was, and how badly the party squandered its chances.
Dukakis promised a “new era” for America, as this campaign commercial shows, but he was not successful in elucidating a vision of what that would mean for ordinary people.
Let’s face it, Ronald Reagan’s second term was no honeymoon. The economy was good and the Gipper did well in his relations with Gorbachev and the Soviets, but the Iran-Contra scandal cast a very long shadow over Reagan’s legacy. The scandal was still going on as the election machinery began revving up. Though Vice President George H.W. Bush seemed the likeliest claimant of the Republican standard, there was a sense of ambivalence in the party, that they weren’t really that thrilled with him. In fact, they weren’t. Bush was much more of an ideological moderate than Reagan, he had zero personal popularity or magnetism and he was much worse at applying the glue that held the Republicans’ 1980s electoral coalition of economic conservatives, “Reagan Democrats” and evangelical Christians together than Reagan had been. This should have been the Democrats’ opening.
Unfortunately, the Democrats didn’t seem to get the memo that this wasn’t 1984, 1980 or 1976. The primary challengers who started checking in during late 1987 and early 1988 were, as a whole, shockingly weak. They had two leftovers from the 1984 primary race (Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson), two career politicians who weren’t ready for Presidential prime-time (Biden and Gore, both of whom went on to be Vice-President), and a rogues’ gallery of identity-politics favorites and bland Beltway insiders who couldn’t generate much warmth from voters. You also had Michael Dukakis. The son of Greek immigrants, Dukakis was an old guard Massachusetts liberal, the kind of very likable, very smart but somewhat wonky technocrat who would have made a great city councillor, but probably a mediocre President. Dukakis had served twice as Governor of Massachusetts, elected first in 1974 and again in 1982 after an unlikely political comeback, which was necessary because many people in his own party weren’t super keen on him.
This tasteless and frankly racist ad–run by a Bush/Quayle candidate surrogate or “dark money” group–was key in defining Dukakis as soft on crime.
Dukakis’s primary strategy was basically, “stay alive.” He had no broad program for the country, no big vision, but could credibly sell himself as competent and caring, both of which he undoubtedly was. Throughout the spring he struggled to place in various primaries and watched as his opponents dropped out one by one, each overcome by a different obstacle: Hart by rumors of an affair, Biden by a plagiarism scandal, and Jackson by his own misstatements and difficulty connecting to voters beyond core urban constituencies. Dukakis was the last man standing, and in July 1988 sailed his battered ship to the Atlanta convention to accept a nomination that nobody was really enthusiastic about giving him in the first place. When he chose his running mate, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, many Democrats thought Bentsen was actually a much stronger candidate than Dukakis.
For his part, Bush wasn’t doing a whole lot better. The Republican opposition was tepid and he clinched the nomination early–mainly due to Reagan’s endorsement–but Poppy seemed intent on making what should have been a cakewalk of an election into a cliffhanger. He had no broad program for the country either, a vision much smaller than Dukakis’s, and had difficulty selling himself as competent and caring, especially when his campaign adviser, Lee Atwater, insisted on running such a negative and cynical campaign. Atwater’s strategy was essentially to wrap Bush in the flag and appeal to values voters while tarring Dukakis as Mondale 2.0 or Carter 3.0. A vicious attack ad, playing on racial fears, horrified voters with the mug shot of African-American murderer Willie Horton who went on a crime spree after being let out on a furlough program that Dukakis enacted as Governor of Massachusetts. In reality the elder Bush is a caring and compassionate man, but after crap like the Horton ad, he seemed mean, bitter and hysterical. Yet the ad achieved exactly what Atwater intended it to: scare the hell out of people.
This photo is basically self-explanatory. What the hell was he thinking?
Dukakis struggled against the onslaught and continually tried to keep the campaign about issues rather than themes. The problem was he just wasn’t any good as a candidate. Witness one of the most embarrassing moments in U.S. electoral history: Dukakis riding around in a tank, wearing a helmet that made him look like Snoopy. The stunt was supposed to be about Dukakis shoring up his credibility as Commander-in-Chief and defense issues. Instead it became about how the whole country howled with laughter at how stupid he looked. At one of the debates, CNN anchor Bernie Shaw asked Dukakis a cruel below-the-belt question about the death penalty in which Dukakis was asked to imagine his own wife being raped and murdered. Instead of unleashing holy hell over a question like this and coming back to Earth as a human being that voters would have respected, Dukakis blew himself up with a wonky textbook answer totally devoid of emotion or conviction.
Dukakis couldn’t even make hay out of Bush’s most disastrous misstep, which was his selection of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, the dimmest bulb in the firmament of American politics at that time, as his running mate. At the VP debate Bentsen ended Quayle’s career permanently with four immortal words, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” But Dukakis’s campaign couldn’t even make a competent “You want this guy a heartbeat away from the Presidency?” argument. There was just no there there. To paraphrase Mondale from four years earlier, where was the beef?
Dukakis defeats Dukakis. His response to Bernard Shaw’s horrifying question basically ended the campaign.
Thus, on November 8, 1988, Dukakis essentially handed the White House to Bush on a silver platter. What’s amazing about it is that it wasn’t worse than it turned out to be. Duke managed to scare up 111 electoral votes–actually considerably better than Mondale had managed–and 45% of the electorate who would have voted for a basketball with a smile painted on it before pulling the lever for a Republican. With Reagan out of the picture the Republicans’ coalition was already pretty flimsy, but Bush was lucky that the Democrats were asleep at the switch. It was the last time Republicans got more than 50% of the vote.
After the election Dukakis retired as Governor and became a college professor–an excellent use of his talents. He also had to deal with the tragic alcoholism of his wife Kitty, who later wrote a wrenching memoir of her struggles during the campaign. Bush, of course, went on to his own epic electoral defeat. The best thing that can be said for the election of 1988 is that it taught Democrats a valuable lesson: never put on a funny hat if you’re running for President.