Thursday, July 2, 2020

The 1988 Election's Long Shadow

This Bush ad is eerily like something out of the Soviet Union, and features the worst song ever recorded

Someone younger than me on Twitter today was asking why Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election to George Bush so decisively after having a large lead in the polls after the Democratic convention. This particular election is obscure, especially to people who didn't live through it. Howeverm this was the first presidential election that I could meaningfully understand, so it has stuck in my mind pretty much ever since. I also hadn't really developed a political viewpoint of any kind yet, so I sort of watched it in a detached kind of way. (By 1992 I'd figured out that despite my conservative upbringing that I was a progressive, soon to be social democrat.)

In ensuing years I think it was an election that did a lot of damage to the Democratic Party, because the party took the exact wrong lessons from it. It's also a strange election, since it occurred in a far less partisan time when major swings could happen much easier than they do now.

When pressed for reasons why Dukakis lost, this is what I would list:

  • A lackluster campaign that failed to establish a coherent narrative, e.g. the tank photo shoot
  • The candidate's lack of charisma and passion
  • General animus against northeastern liberals with ethnic backgrounds
  • The Willie Horton ad
  • Relatedly, the context of the War on Drugs
  • Anger over Iran-Contra had faded and Reagan's approval went back up
  • Roger Ailes helping Bush become a nasty political street fighter while using rhetoric ("kinder gentler nation") softer than hardcore Reaganism
I still remember the presidential debates when Bush called Dukakis a "liberal" with a sneer in his voice. Dukakis seemed to be embarrassed by the title instead of proudly defending his record. (This brilliant SNL sketch summed up the feeling of besieged liberalism at the time.) The Willie Horton ad was an even more infamous moment where Dukakis failed to strongly fight back against a nefarious and racist attack. 

The Democrats responded to this defeat by taking away the exact wrong lessons. Instead of realizing they needed to be strong and not back down to Republican bullshit, they assumed that they needed to preempt those attacks by being more conservative. Hence Democrats decided to get "tough on crime" and pass thing like the Clinton crime bill. Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy in office was, in many respects, the response to 1988. 

For years and years Democrats ran away from pushing a progressive agenda, seeing that as something inherently unpopular when in fact many of these ideas have broad support. For example, voters in red states like Oklahoma and Nebraska have passed Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives. Nebraska and Arkansas voters approved increases in the minimum wage. Democrats have been so afraid of their own shadows for so long that they are failing to capitalize on things they support that are very popular because they assume people don't want them. Would you vote for someone with that little confidence in themselves? (They're worse than me trying to date in college.)

The 1988 election also set this weird precedent of trying to be the party of decency in the face of Republican chicanery, with the implicit assumption that the voting public would reward virtue. Just as Dukakis did little to push back on scurrilous attacks against him, John Kerry said little in public about the Swift Boat lies, figuring that the truth would speak for itself. (Bill Clinton was more robust in his responses, but to be fair he actually did a lot of the things he was accused of!)

The other big lesson of needing an appealing narrative didn't quite sink in. Bill Clinton and especially Obama figured that out, but Gore, HRC, and Kerry never did. One of my big fears about Biden is that he will do the same, will run on "I'm not Trump," and that won't be enough. He like others in the Democratic leadership are of an older generation formed in liberal defeat in the 70s and 80s. I really hope they still aren't fighting 1988 in their heads, unable to forget the one that got away but without truly understanding why. 

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