Michael Dukakis and the Lessons of 1988
Michael Dukakis, Huffington Post interview, May 23 2009
The chaotic, ugly 1988 Democratic presidential primaries should have primed then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis for the all-out assault he would face in the general election against then-Vice President George Bush, but they did not. His eventual loss remains a cautionary tale to presidential aspirants.
Dukakis was unable or unwilling to fend off the attacks from Bush. Bush seized upon Dukakis’ liberalism, and additionally insisted he somehow was a “Harvard Yard” elitist (Dukakis is a Swarthmore grad; Bush is a Yale alum). Later, when Dukakis at first declined to release his medical records, rumors were circulated about a past psychiatric condition (his long-term doctor repudiated the claims).
The Bush camp also hammered Dukakis over his support for Massachusetts’ prison furlong program. Convicted murderer Willie Horton, serving a life sentence for murder without the possibility for parole, was nonetheless released for a weekend, courtesy of the program. He failed to return and subsequently raped a woman and beat a man. The Bush campaign, including manager Lee Atwater and media consultant Roger Ailes (president of Fox News Channel), used the tragedy to smear Dukakis at every opportunity, most famously with an ad entitled “Revolving Door,” which, while it did not name Horton, mentioned “weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole” who “committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape.” It was very successful and almost overnight cemented the idea that Bush was tough on crime and Dukakis was not.
Though Dukakis’ anti-death penalty stance was well-known, during a debate with Bush, moderator Bernard Shaw asked a question many would later claim was inappropriate: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis stood firm and said he would not, but some viewers judged Dukakis not by his answer, but by what they felt was a lack of sufficient emotionality in his answer.
In the end, Dukakis and his running mate, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, lost to George Bush and Indiana Senator Dan Quayle in an Electoral College landslide.
The lessons of the Dukakis loss – respond immediately and with force to negative attacks – likely did not escape at least one Democrat: then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who would face his own barrage from the Bush campaign machine in the 1992 presidential election. But Clinton was prepared: he created a team within his campaign whose sole job it was to fend off the attacks.
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