I've been thinking a lot this week about the 1988 election. Most of this is probably because I read Matt Bai's All The Truth Is Out, about Gary Hart's campaign that year being derailed by accusations of adultery and the broader implications of a changing political media taking a more tabloid approach in an age of emerging hypermedia. It's an interesting book, although Bai is overly praiseful of Hart and predictably insider-y. That said, it reminded me that the 1988 election was the first one where I was actually able to coherently follow it; In '84 I knew there was one happening and who was running, but was still pretty hazy as to the issues. In '88 I knew enough to get all the jokes about it on Saturday Night Live, which I was watching religiously.
It's an interesting election to think about this year for a variety of reasons. It happens to be the last time that the incumbent party held the White House for a third straight election, and the last time since FDR and Truman that a party had been able to do so. That trick is something that Hillary Clinton is trying to pull off this year, something the Democrats failed to do in 2000 and the Republicans failed to accomplish in 2008. This used to not be so tricky. The Democrats held the White House from 1933 to 1953, and the Republicans from 1921-1933 and 1897-1913. (I won't dip into the nineteenth century to belabor the point.)
This election should thus have been a golden opportunity for the Republicans, but their dumpster fire of a candidate looks like he's headed for disaster. If they were running a generic Republican I think they would be winning. One thing that ties 1988 with 2016 is that both candidates are not well liked. The Trump-Clinton matchup involves two people with high unfavorable ratings, while Bush and Dukakis were both uninspiring to their party bases and to the country at large. (This was reflected in historically low voter turnout.) While the feelings and political discourse in the country are very, very different from 1988, there is a similar lack of enthusiasm in the broader electorate. Most of the passion on the left is merely oppositional, to stop Trump, while on the other side, many Republicans are skeptical of Trump.
As Bai points out in his book, the 1988 election is very interesting from a televisual perspective. Candidates became defined by clips and sound bites in ways they had never been before, reflecting a new media landscape where the stentorian nightly newscasts of the big three networks would be replaced by news as entertainment. Gary Hart has been forever defined by the picture of him with Donna Rice. When people think of Michael Dukakis, they think of his ill-fated tank ride. If they bother to recall Dan Quayle, it's him getting schooled by Lloyd Bentsen's brutal "You're no Jack Kennedy" putdown in the vice-presidential debate. Flash forward to today, where Donald Trump's nomination would not be possible without the news as entertainment paradigm and his well-honed ability to manipulate it. Trump has basically used cable news as a vast reservoir of free publicity, and has managed to make the entire election story about himself. He is the ultimate product of a political media that seeks ratings and clicks over anything else. (Hello, CBS president Les Moonves pretty much admitted this!) The voracious, yawning maw of 24 hour news needs chum stuffed down its gullet, and Trump has dumped the chum better than anyone else on the political scene.
Speaking of corrupt media, the most notable ad from the 1988 election still lives in infamy: the notorious "Willie Horton" spot. It is still remembered today, more than any other presidential campaign ad in the last thirty years. It was used to tie Dukakis to the specter of black criminality, and it worked remarkably well. The ad was technically run by an "independent" organization in an effort to keep the Bush campaign from being directly tainted by such an obvious appeal to white racial fear. Unlike in 1988, Trump owns his racism, and he has used it as his primary basis of appeal, rather than a cynical ploy. That makes the stakes of this election a whole helluva lot higher than they were in 1988.