Barack Obama and Michael Dukakis: Same As It Ever Was

by: Matt Stoller

Tue Aug 19, 2008 at 13:38

Lots of people remember the tank ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988 (particularly Digby, who first noticed this parallel).  What very few people remember (because of Survivorship bias) was Dukakis's response.  The ad is here.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I'm fed up with it. Haven't seen anything like it in 25 years of public life. George Bush's negative TV ads, distorting my record, full of lies and he knows it. I'm on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I'm against. I want to build a strong defense. I'm sure he wants to build a strong defense. So this isn't about defense issues. It's about dragging the truth into the gutter. And I'm not going to let them do it. This campaign is too important. The stakes are too high for every American family. The real question is, will we have a president who fights for the privileged few, or will we have a president who fights for you? George Bush wants to give the wealthiest one percent of the people in this country a new tax break worth $30,000 a year. I'm fighting for you and your family, for affordable housing and health care, for better jobs, for the best education and opportunity for our children. It's a tough fight, I know that. Uphill all the way, but I'm going to keep on fighting because what I'm fighting for is our future.
Matt Stoller :: Barack Obama and Michael Dukakis: Same As It Ever Was
So how is Barack Obama responding to McCain's attacks on him as impugning his patriotism?

But one of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.

Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain.

If we win this election, it will be as Chris notes in his terrific Nation article because the demographic groups that voted for McGovern in 1972 and brought us some states in 1988 are now a majority of the electorate.  In 1976 and 1992, it was a conservative Southern Democrat who brought us enough 'Bubba's' to pick a slight majority, but it was a conservative majority patched together by liberals and very residual Dixiecrats.  The 'new politics' post-partisan line has been used by McGovern, Carter, Dukakis and Clinton, so it's hardly new.  Looking at Obama's rhetoric, it sounds eerily similar to that of Dukakis, which isn't to say that Democrats will lose, only that it is hardly new.  And if you're frustrated, that's because you've been here before and it didn't end well.

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Allow me to challenge conventional wisdom (4.00 / 3)
Maybe this isn't the right thread for this question, but whatever:

Could it be that we are all wrong to assume that Dukakis, Gore and Kerry lost because of inadequate responses to these kinds of smears?  Perhaps those smears - despite all the media attention - really were not major factors?

Just asking.

Not the smears specifically (0.00 / 0)
but the narrative that they were part and parcel of.  

[ Parent ]
sure (0.00 / 0)
Elections never have just one causal factor.

[ Parent ]
Was it even a significant factor? (0.00 / 0)
I guess I'm just flailing about here for more evidence, perhaps in a time when the polling wasn't as specific.

I remember how silly Dukakis looked in the tank, I remember how Bush-senior framed the election around patriotism and the flag and I remember the damn Willie Horton thing.  Certainly, the media at the time acted like these were the major stories and major influences on the voters.

I just can't help myself from wondering whether all of this was noise and had no real impact in the end result.

[ Parent ]
My guess (4.00 / 1)
is that in this case it did make a big difference.  The thing is that most competing hypotheses are more "structural" - to do with how well the candidates positions matched the distribution in beliefs in society, for example - and those kinds of hypotheses have a difficult time explaining big swings within a single election over a short period of time.  Dukakis went from up 17 to losing significantly.  If you assume that things like candidate ideology and citizen preferences regarding policy are relatively stable, then they can't explain that kind of seachange.

John McCain: Health insurance for low income children represents an "unfunded liability."

[ Parent ]
What did? (0.00 / 0)
In my own personal experience, my mother switched from Dukakis to Bush because during the campaign she discovered he opposed the death penalty.

I refuse to believe that as the campaign goes on, they discover issues where they prefer McCain, but it could be. Georgia may be a HUGE problem for Obama.  

[ Parent ]
All that you can go by is movement in the polls (0.00 / 0)
and these attacks certainly did have an effect on the polls.  I don't have the data in front of me, but you can look at Kerry's numbers tank with a strong corellation with the swiftboat ads.  

[ Parent ]
Ahem... Macaca... ahem... (0.00 / 0)
Just sayin...

[ Parent ]
I think it's very possible (4.00 / 4)
I think that after every election, there is a huge tendency to give post hoc explanations for the outcome which fit simple, comprehensible narratives. E.g.: "Kerry lost because he was swiftboated." Well, maybe that made a marginal difference. But if the swiftboaters hadn't spoken up, some other negative line of attack would've consumed the media space in which the swift boat stuff was discussed, and then the CW would have been that that was the cause of Kerry's loss.

But if you consider that 2004 was the first presidential election after September 11th; that Iraq (arguably) wasn't obviously a complete disaster; that the economey wasn't doing so bad; that Kerry actually came pretty close... I'm not sure that Kerry didn't perform fairly well. And if he'd gotten those extra 60,000 or whatever votes in Ohio, everyone would picking apart the reasons for Bush's loss.

Or think about 2000. It's common nowadays to hear the view that Lieberman was an uninspired VP pick. But if not for butterfly ballots in Palm Beach county, the conventional wisdom would have been that Lieberman was a brilliant pick that earned enough Jewish votes in Florida to swing the election to Gore.

[ Parent ]
it's the same kind of Survivorship bias (0.00 / 0)
in a sense.  TV media never checks in on the ground, they analyze the campaign through their petty lens, and they naturally analyze winners and losers through the same lens.  Was it John Kerry getting swiftboated, or him having a disorganized and chaotic and overlapping field effort compared to the Republicans' successful 72-hour plan and base turnout effort?

The answer is probably both, to an extent.  But I would argue the latter was far more important than the former.

Insert shameless blog promotion here.

[ Parent ]
Good Question (4.00 / 2)
Most of the festering angst within blogsylvania is over this exact issue. The thing is, I'm not convinced that it really matters.

Maybe it does, but like I said, I'm not convinced. And if it's so clear that it does, how come I've never seen the plainly made case for it? I've been looking.

There's a chance that I've just missed it. And if it's there, please let me know and I'll eat crow. But otherwise, can we save ourselves from the carpal tunnel we're gonna get from typing over and over oh my god Obama needs to destroy McCain's character right now or we're all doooooomed?

If it's clearly true, then please make the case that it's true. If you don't have such a case, then it's not helping anyone by repeating the same unsupported ideas over and over.

[ Parent ]
The point that (4.00 / 11)
people keep missing is that the important factor isn't the response to GOP smears but our own offensive narrative, or lack thereof.

Which is to say that there's no real problem with what Obama said in response; the problem is that he has to keep saying things in response. Quick: what has McCain said in response to Obama's attacks? Exactly, Obama hasn't made him have to respond.

It's a little sad, actually. Team Obama thinking it's going to neutralize the Corsi book with a 40-page opposition research memo. You can't neutralize attacks with defenses, you can only neutralize attacks with your own attacks.  

[ Parent ]
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. (4.00 / 4)
Yes! Yes.

Ahem. I concur and agree: You don't neutralize attacks with defenses, you neutralize attacks with your own attacks.  

There's still time. I think it's possible  the Obama campaign is laying back, building the ground game and developing a narrative that, for all its faults, also tells us that Saint McCain is going negative while Obama is not ... and waiting until after the conventions to unleash some aggressive activity.

And the content of attacks is easy: McCain is unstable. He blows his fuse, he erupts. He's prone to red-faced explosions. His campaign screams hysterically, going nuclear over every perceived insult. They engaged in a complete melt-down over the Clark statement, throwing a spoiled temper tantrum.

[ Parent ]
...and he's stupid, cruel and sneaky, to boot. (4.00 / 3)
We seem to have an awful lot of dry powder lying around. How 'bout we light a match?
If not now, when?

[ Parent ]
I sorta feel like (0.00 / 0)
Obama's camp tried to fire the first shot back when Wes Clark made his comments.

It didn't work. Obama's attacks were responded to negatively and McCain's positively.  

[ Parent ]
yes - but everyone here has THE answer (0.00 / 0)
almost everyone who posts claims to have the key to winning...produce this ad, say this, etc.  

[ Parent ]
comments, not posters (0.00 / 0)
the bloggers are mostly modest.  it's the commenters who vent and have the "answers."

[ Parent ]
Welcome to a weblog. If you see (4.00 / 2)
text in blue, that's called a 'hyperlink'. Click there (with your left mouse button) to learn more. You can offer opinions and rants on a 'blog', and engage in conversation. If you have any really terrible ideas you're sure won't help anyone, including yourself for the opportunity to vent, please feel free to mention them!

[ Parent ]
bet i been online longer than you, buddy (0.00 / 0)
on the net since 96. very early poster on kos.  paid staffer on pol and grassroots campaigns, too.  

what's your deal?  you got ammo for your condescension?

[ Parent ]
My condescension fires hot air, baby! (0.00 / 0)
And I never run out. Bang! Bang!

That was just a gentle tease. If I wanted to strike fear into your heart I would've called you a poop.

[ Parent ]
you are a doo doo head. top that (4.00 / 1)
top that, stoopy.  you cannot win.  Because only I have the answers.  When the hell will the rest of the stupid world recognize that?  

[ Parent ]
And while you're at it (0.00 / 0)
get offa his lawn!

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Well, it was something (4.00 / 1)
and that something wasn't policy details.

When the American public is polled on straight policy issues, without attaching faces and personalities to them, the electorate lines up just to the right of Dennis Kucinich.

So when they elect somebody like George W. Bush, there pretty much has to be a non-ideological explanation. Either they were convinced that George W. was a great guy, or that John Kerry was a piece of shit, or both. And considering how most of the right's efforts in 2004 centered around convincing voters that Kerry was an effete, elite Frenchman, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that that was how they won.

[ Parent ]
If the reason they won (0.00 / 0)
was because Kerry was casted as an effete elite Frenchman and the electorate didn't like that, then they do not line up just to the right of Dennis Kucinich.

Seems to me if you're sitting there on the political scale, the only possible problem would be that Kerry isn't French enough.  

[ Parent ]
true (4.00 / 3)
But if I recall my history correctly, once Dukakis settled on the campaign theme  of "He's on your side", he actually started doing better in the polls (this was in the fall, not he 17 point lead in the summer).

It was still the tank and Willie Horton that did him in.  

he did start doing better, (4.00 / 3)
his showing some emotion got some traction, and he started sounding more populist. And this ad that Matt and Digby cite was the starting point. the problem was, he didn't release this ad until Oct. 21, after at least 3 weeks of silence during the pounding he was taking on his supposed "weakness" on defense, the Willie Horton and "Revolving Door" ads, and the "Boston Harbor" ad.

There were only two weeks left in the campaign. And let's not forget the other factors in that race: rumors about Kitty Dukakis burning the flag and Mike Dukakis getting treatment for mental illness; Donna Brazile forced to resign after spreading the rumor that Bush had an affair with his former secretary; and Dukakis' extremely damaging debate answer on not seeking the death penalty in the event that his wife were raped and murdered. Not to mention the fact that the Dukakis campaign team was simply outmaneuvered at every turn.

Today, Obama hits back no later than 24 hours, and his team is universally considered far superior than McCain's, and has proven it in many respects. While the language may be similar in this instance, there really are no cogent, substantial similarities between the Democratic campaigns of 1988 and 2008.

[ Parent ]
Dukakis campaign paralysis (4.00 / 4)
The biggest mistake Dukakis made was firing John Sasso after the Biden videotape incident. Sasso was Dukakis' political guru, and Susan Estrich did not understand what made the candidate tick.

Actually, the biggest mistake was rehiring Sasso and not firing Estrich -- the campaign was paralyzed by infighting between the two camps through most of September and early October.

During this period, I wrote memo after memo, all of them going down a black hole in Boston. In mid October, I ran into a staffer from Boston, who told me the story of the Sasso/Estrich battle -- she said it was an epic tarantula & wasp struggle, and only one would prevail.

She took my stuff, flew back to Boston and gave it to Sasso, who went on to win the power struggle and emerge as the effective manager.

It was too little, too late -- Obama still has time to turn it around, but lost opportunities are lost forever.  

[ Parent ]
wow, interesting stuff. (0.00 / 0)
yes, I figured the Sasso affair hurt them too, but didn't know enough about it.

[ Parent ]
yeah, i heard this too (4.00 / 1)
Estrich should never have worked again after that.

Like Mark Penn should never work again.  Sigh.

[ Parent ]
so what did Bill Clinton say? (4.00 / 1)
Because if he sounded similar, then this doesn't prove anything.

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Same Thing (0.00 / 0)
Bill Clinton said the same kinds of things, but he got all puffyfaced and wagged his finger when he said it.

[ Parent ]
Dukakis feature in the Rocky Mountain News (4.00 / 5)
The RMN had a 8/18/08 pre-convention feature piece on Michael Dukakis -- it's a good historical overview, and what does he think today.


Twenty years have passed, but Michael Dukakis still kicks himself -- again and again and again.

Seven times in an hourlong chat, he brings up "mistakes" from that 1988 presidential election.

Twice, he flat-out admits that he "screwed it up." He wonders aloud whether he might have been naive. And, lest anybody still wonders who was to blame for his loss to Republican George H.W. Bush, Dukakis keeps repeating that the strategic decisions were "my fault, nobody else's."

Things just didn't work out the way the former Massachusetts governor had hoped. And this after what Dukakis considered a "great," "terrific," "unified," "positive" Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Turns out, a great political get-together just isn't enough, particularly if the presidential nominee forgets the most important part of a convention: The morning after.

After the last balloons drop, a presidential nominee has to start the campaign all over again. He has to be ready to fight back against attacks. And, Dukakis says from experience, those attacks are coming.

Having has some personal experience with the Dukakis campaign, seeing Team Obama make the same mistakes is extremely worrisome.

Visceral Sound Bites trump Thoughtful and Nuanced -- every time.

Now, it's true that Visceral Sound Bites combined with Thoughtful and Nuanced trumps brain dead Visceral Sound Bites -- but if your campaign is wandering around in the wilderness, explaining the hows and whys of alternative energy, you are going to get your clock cleaned by Drill Here, Drill Now.

If your opponent has the better soundbite, turn it against them -- John McCain himself said that Offshore Drilling is all for show, and won't help us solve the energy crisis.

Once again, John McCain has shown himself to be a pandering politician, willing to say anything to win.

I still think Obama will win -- but Team Obama now face an uphill fight, because they violated the First Law of Politics: whoever defines their opponent first has the advantage.

By June of 1996, Team Clinton had tied Newt Gingrich around Bob Dole's neck like an anchor chain; Dole never got close in the polls.

If the election is about Barack Obama, McCain wins -- if the election is about the failed policies of Bush McCain, Obama wins.

Taking the High Road has NEVER won a presidential campaign -- and we can't afford another lesson as to why it doesn't work.

In the best case scenario, the candidate remains above the fray, but still manages to make their opponent radioactive roadkill.

If Team Obama doesn't get short, sharp, and serious very soon -- Barack Obama can start working on his next book: 1001 reasons why I lost the election. I'm sure Mike Dukakis would be willing to write the forward.

McCain is MUCH better than Dole (0.00 / 0)
on the stump (yes, even there) and in a room.  

[ Parent ]
Just another 'Sternly Worded Letter' (4.00 / 3)
Obama's response was just a verbal version of the dreaded Sternly Worded Letter. I'm sure McCain is quaking...  

Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans

Dovetails nicely, doesn't it? (4.00 / 2)

 There is one theme that Obama DOES repeat over and over, in virtually every campaign speech. Unfortunately, it's his expression of respect and admiration for McCain's service.

 That crap really, really needs to stop. When was the last time McCain praised Obama?

 The Obama campaign closely parallels the behavior of Democrats in Congress since they, er, took over. Maybe if we're really nice to Republicans and show them how cooperative we are they won't say mean things about us.

 Obama's just a symptom. When you have John Kerry and Russ Feingold singing McCain's praises to the national media, it becomes very hard to develop a convincing counter-narrative against McCain.

 Most of the Democrats' problems -- in Congress and in the campaign -- are self-inflicted.

"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

[ Parent ]
Been there. Done that. Hated it. (4.00 / 6)
Specific ads and moments are tactics. It seems to me their strategy is very simple. Since I have been politically aware (Carter - Reagan 1980) the opposing team has done a one/two punch to win.

1. They wrap themselves in easily digestible iconography and messages then stay focused on that message to the bitter and bloody end. They say they don't follow polls, but that's only because their polling says that is a popular thing to say. Get my point?

2. They attack aggressively in order to make us unpalatable. Or put another way, they stoke fear and hatred about us to a point that no one could fathom one of us in the White House. They mock, ridicule and belittle us so that we look like children and all our open-mindedness and feel good rhetoric looks like we're just trying to get out of the hole their rhetoric threw us in to.

Now, to talk about Bubba, he benefited from 12 years of Reagan/Bush, a shitty economy and Ross Perot. But I remember Gennifer Flowers. I remember merciless mocking of Hillary. I remember a rambunctious campaign portraying Bill Clinton as a governor of a state whose biggest concern was chicken coops or some shit like that. They brutalized him, but he fought right back by going on the offensive and generating a negative narrative about his opponent.

Obama needs to do that too, like starting a month ago.

Laugh hard. Its a long ways to the bank.  

Best defense ... (0.00 / 0)
is a good offense, in politics as in football. Obama needs to put a better one together, fast - as you say, "like starting a month ago."

[ Parent ]
Dukakis, Gore And Kerry (4.00 / 1)
     With each of them, fill in the end of this sentence: "Why, if he'd been elected he would have accomplished the important goals set out in his campaign, namely. . ."
     They ran against Bushes, and they probably figured that there was no way a majority of voters would be so dim-witted as to vote for Bush. But they didn't have any positive goals for change. The Bushes did, even though it was change in the wrong direction.
    This year, it's gotta be universal health care. If Obama runs on it and wins, then either it passes or the 2010 campaign is about the Republicans' efforts to filibuster it. If he runs on it and loses, then everybody who gets sick and goes bankrupt in the next 4 years will know that their life would have been better if they'd voted Democratic.

Want to actually watch that ad (4.00 / 3)
This one has an annoying intro: link.

And this is from Living Room Candidate: link.

Perhaps the worst way to respond to a negative attack is to say that it's just not true and the people who are saying it are big meanies, but at the same time they're good people who want to do what you want to do, like protect America.

Didn't know that Dukakis was so outspoken (0.00 / 0)
Damn, his response sounded a bit like Howard Beale:

In contrast, Obama sounds more like Rodney Dangerfield:
"I don't get no respect."

Hmm, which way of responding will resonate more with the public?

Have we not been saying for the past 8 years that... (0.00 / 0)
...Dems have not stop blowing money just on ads and concentrate on moving resources to and spending more on organisation and GOTV? Seems to me Obama is doing both so why the whining?

Sure Obama's doing some things right (0.00 / 0)
But offense/defense he's doing very wrong. If McCain keeps saying Obama is bad, and Obama keeps saying McCain is good, don't you think a lot of swayable voters will think, well, that McCain is good and Obama is bad?  And how do you think they'll end up voting?

Negative campaigning works in a 2-person race. Obama was wise to avoid it in the primary, initially because it was a multiway race, and later because he couldn't afford to offend Hillary and her supporters. This isn't a primary and Obama won't  be looking to get McCain's supporters later. He almost lost to Hillary because she went negative and he didn't. Same here - he has lots of advantages but trying to stay above the fray just makes him look weak.

[ Parent ]
I remember that movie (4.00 / 1)

 And I saw the prequel in 1984, and the sequels in 2000 and 2004.

None of them ended well.

I thought Obama would be different. I thought that he, too, had seen those movies.

Doesn't appear to be the case.

Well, the Republican brand is so trashed he might win anyway.  

"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn


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