The GOP’s Dukakis Problem

Republicans gloat that President Obama’s days are numbered—but Romney could go the way of Michael Dukakis.

Theo Anderson

How Dukakis tanked: A still from a George Bush 1988 presidential campaign ad.

Among Republican partisans, it’s peak season for trash-talk. Polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in a close race, with Obama having a one- to two-point edge when recent polls are averaged. If you believe recent conservative punditry, though, it’s already game over. The fat lady has sung. Obama is a one-and-done president.

When voters begin paying attention to Mitt Romney late this summer, what will they see? The wealthy venture capitalist? The 'also unemployed' populist?

It’s mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud for President Obama,” Joseph Curl observed last week in the right-wing Washington Times. Curl feels that the panic and desperation of Team Obama is palpable… They definitely know something we don’t yet know – and it isn’t good.” In American Thinker, Bruce Walker wrote that there is a conservative voting trend building, and its momentum is going to make it truly terrifying for liberals come November.”

Curl and Walker are actually restrained compared with Dick Morris, who performed the equivalent of a naked victory dance over the ashes of the Obama campaign earlier this month. Morris opined that voters who are undecided almost never end up voting for the sitting president. So when polls show President Obama at 45 percent of the vote,” Morris wrote, they are really reflecting a likely 55 – 45 Romney victory, at the very least.”

So November will bring not just an Obama defeat, but one of the most humiliating rejections of a sitting president in the history of U.S. elections. And that’s at the very least.” No wonder Republicans can barely contain themselves.

Is there any substance behind the GOP’s trash-talk? A little perspective might be helpful. Take the case of Michael Dukakis, the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 1988.

In mid-May, 1988, a newly released New York Times/CBS poll showed Dukakis leading George H.W. Bush by 10 points, 49 percent to 39 percent. He had trailed Bush by a slight margin in the same poll two months earlier.

The May poll showed that voters didn’t yet know much about Dukakis. But among those who do have a view of him,” the Times reported, Mr. Dukakis was viewed favorably. Over all, 38 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of him, while 14 percent had an unfavorable view.”

Most surprisingly, Dukakis polled relatively well with conservatives, mainly because voters didn’t think of him as a liberal. Twenty-seven percent of registered voters – and only a third of conservatives – identified Dukakis as a liberal. Among the strong majority of conservatives who didn’t identify him as a liberal, Dukakis ran about even with Bush.

By the end of July, a Gallup poll showed Dukakis still leading the race by six points – 47 percent to 41 percent. The big political story of the next few months was how that lead eroded, and how Dukakis ended up winning just 111 electoral votes to Bush’s 426 votes, and losing the popular vote by a spread of about eight points.

It turned out that when voters actually learned more about Dukakis, they didn’t like him much. That was because the GOP succeeded in portraying him as an out-of-touch, weak-on-defense liberal. Dukakis responded by trying to remain true to his principles while recasting himself as a Cold War warrior, something he obviously wasn’t. Trying to be himself while also reinventing himself, he confused and alienated voters.

Two major gaffes during the 1988 campaign reflected that tension. On the one hand, during a debate, Dukakis said that he would oppose the death penalty even for a person convicted of raping and murdering his wife. It was less the substance of his answer than the dispassionate delivery that damaged Dukakis. He came off as exactly what the Bush campaign had been saying he was: an out-of-touch bureaucrat.

On the other hand, Dukakis strapped on a helmet and rode around in a tank, grinning, and gave the GOP a gift that kept on giving. The attempt at reinvention was too obvious and pandering, and the imagery was flat-out ridiculous.The Bush campaign used the footage in a commercial, playing it against a list of military spending and interventions that Dukakis had opposed. The ad closed by calling Dukakis a risk America couldn’t afford.

That attack rang true for voters because Dukakis never found a way to present himself, or articulate his liberalism, in a way that didn’t come off as either bloodlessly bureaucratic or ludicrously out of character.

It’s usually Democrats who struggle with this dilemma. Al Gore and John Kerry were poster children for it. But now, with Mitt Romney as their man, the GOP is saddled with the Michael Dukakis problem. Romney is torn between being himself – a man of extreme wealth and privilege – and being a reinvented version of himself who appeals to the average voter. So we have him, on one hand, saying that he won’t apologize for his father’s wealth and referring casually to the couple of Cadillacs” that his wife drives. And then we have him telling a group of unemployed people who are struggling to find work that I’m also unemployed.”

The recent Republican gloating about the doomed Obama campaign is rooted in the slow economic recovery, and in the sense that Obama’s accomplishments are unpopular with a wide segment of the voting public. And it’s true that the president is vulnerable to both lines of attack. But it’s also true that Bush was even more vulnerable than Obama at this point in the 1988 campaign. The same poll that gave Dukakis a ten-point lead in May also gave the Reagan administration an approval rating in the low- to mid-30s on a wide range of important issues; and it showed that 40 percent of voters believed that Democrats would do a better job of addressing the nation’s problems, while 29 percent believed Republicans would do the better job.

It looked like a cakewalk for Democrats, in other words, until voters paid attention to the party’s actual nominee. When they did, in the late summer, they found a man who sent all kinds of mixed messages about who he was and why they should vote for him. And so they chose the Bush – a boring leftover from of an unpopular administration, but at least a known quantity.

When voters begin paying attention to Mitt Romney late this summer, what will they see? The wealthy venture capitalist? The also unemployed” populist? Some of both, most likely, in addition to whatever reinventions Romney can muster in the interim.

The trash-talking pundits might want to ponder this reality. American voters haven’t been kind to such divided personalities, as Dukakis and other Democratic candidates since him have learned the hard way.

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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