In 1988, Democrats nominated the former Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, as their candidate for President of the United States.
Dukakis is considered by many--including me--the most hapless and futile Democratic Presidential nominee since 1956. While McGovern had the tenor of the times and Nixonian dirty tricks to blame, and anyone--much less Walter Mondale--was doomed running against Ronald Reagan in 1984, Dukakis was nominated in a cycle Democrats had every reason to believe they could win.
But he was crushed. It wasn't even close.
I believe that for many of the very same reasons most of us Democrats prefer not to remember Dukakis--he certainly hasn't been a visible Party figure since--Willard Mittens Romney will be an embarrassing memory for Republicans after he is trounced by President Obama in November.
So: let's hop into the Wayback Machine to revisit this doleful chapter in Democratic Party history, and see how it measures up to today's Conservative Mud Wrestle.
Join me beyond the Terrorist Fist Squiggle.
Dukakis' opponent, George H.W. Bush, had secured his nomination early, swamping Senator Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson and coasting to the convention. Bush enjoyed both the benefits and liabilities of incumbency, having served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan for eight years. He had name recognition, an established national network, credibility in the party and all the money he could need.
As a campaigner, on the other hand, Bush was cold, patrician and unlikeable, with a nasal voice and an (apparently congenital) inability to string together a coherent sentence. And he had to wear the administration's record: the economy had begun to flounder and the public had tired of the corruption, incompetence and slavish obeisance to the Robber Baron class which had become the new face of the Republican Party as a result of the "Reagan Revolution". After eight years, there was a definite sense that it was time for a change. In theory, Bush should have been easy to defeat.
On the Democratic side, in contrast, following a brutal multi-candidate primary cycle which ground both the eventual nominee and the general public image of the Democratic Party to hamburger, Dukakis accepted the nomination as what voters appeared to see as the last, least disagreeable choice from a lousy menu. The defeated included Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Al Gore: each represented a different sector of the party, each carried liabilities, and every one of them--except the unelectable Jackson, who had of course dominated the far-left and African-American vote--was as dull as watching paint dry.
Still, the party had to nominate someone.
The last man standing was a short, stolid technocrat whose most distinguishing characteristic was a pair of caterpillar eyebrows which seemingly threatened to take over the rest of his face. His speaking style evoked the review of minutes at the annual meeting of an office supply company, and he had an odd loose-wristed stance which somewhat resembled a dog sitting up to beg. In short: Michael Dukakis did not light a fire of inspiration under anyone.
Coming out of Massachusetts politics, his policy positions were well left of the national center, particularly with the meteoric rise of the Christian Right. And as a former Governor, he had a track record from which examples of that disconnect could be extracted and exploited.
Any of this sounding kind of familiar?
Dukakis had a problem. He came from a small state that wouldn't count for much in the general election, while his opponent claimed to be a native son both of Maine and Texas (and somehow got away with that). Dukakis wasn't charismatic and he didn't have name recognition. And after managing to steal the football out from under several longtime national party figures who commanded extensive networks of support, he had lukewarm support--or outright resentful opposition-- in many quarters of his own team.
So he tried to consolidate support and bring the party together by selecting as his vice presidential nominee a respected pillar of the party...who also happened to be a Senator from Texas.
It must have sounded great on paper.
Unfortunately, Lloyd Bentsen was at that point seven thousand years old, and he looked it. He was a World War II veteran, and it was nearly 1990.
Bentsen had been elected a Democratic Senator back in the days when Texas had elected Democratic Senators, and had held onto his seat through sheer force of incumbency as a Dixiecrat survivor. His seat has been solidly Republican since the time he left office. In reality, Bentsen wasn't going to make a whit of difference in helping Dukakis to carry Texas. It was impossible.
Dukakis had a narrow message and strategy during the primary. His campaign focused on his economic track record while Governor of Massachusetts, the "Massachusetts Miracle".
None of the Congressional office-holders running against Dukakis could claim any executive experience in managing or promoting economic growth, and this difference is probably the reason he finally won the nod. Because his narrative was different than those of the other candidates, he hadn't had to do much pandering to the constituencies which were the core bases of support for his opponents on the campaign trail; rather, his speeches boiled down to "I know how to bring jobs and prosperity, unlike these other clowns," and as each of the "Seven Dwarves" dropped out, more of their voters moved over to Dukakis--as a second choice--than to anyone else.
(Seriously: sound familiar?)
During the ensuing general election campaign, however, Dukakis made up for lost time. Embarrassingly blatant pandering became the centerpiece of his strategy. He told everyone he met whatever they wanted to hear, while GOP message-spinners cherry-picked his track record to reveal him as a hypocrite and far out of step with the general electorate's values The Willie Horton ad is generally cited as the death blow, but Dukakis did it to himself. His obviously out-of-character efforts at ingratiation in events like the tank-driving photo-op made it clear: this guy was willing to say or do anything. He didn't stand for anything, apparently, except--when cornered--opposition to capital punishment. And most Americans disagreed with him about that.
I recap all this because the parallels with 2012's Republican elections are remarkable, and they clearly bode very well for us. Mitt Romney has pandered for years now, and even his own base voters know that he is a sociopathic liar. His public statements and appearances are a carnival of gaffes, boneheaded reminders of his privilege, and transparent falsehoods. He has established himself as unlikeable and untrustworthy. And he is going to have to pick a VP nominee he believes will somehow bring around those elements of his party that do not like or trust him--in a party which is far more polarized, more crazy, and less civil than Dukakis confronted in 1988.
Someone commented on one of the liveblogs today that s/he did not believe Marco Rubio or Chris Christie would accept a posting to this obviously sinking ship. I tend to agree, but I don't think it matters: Chris Christie will never be the President of the United States, of that I have no fear. Nor will Marco Rubio help Romney with Latinos, as Kos noted today, either.
Somebody from the crazy right--probably an evangelical--is going to be enlisted. And as for Dukakis, it isn't going to do the ticket any good. Evangelicals ain't goin' for a Mormon: they've made that clear. And the nutso statements and positions of a Santorum or the like are anvils around the ticket's neck which will make staying afloat completely impossible with swing, moderate and independent voters.
A final note: the 1988 election actually looked quite close until the last month (rather like the empty Palin-scare in 2008). Many blame the Horton ad and Dukakis' namby-pamby response to questions about capital punishment for his loss, but I believe that it was through his oleaginous pandering, his attempts to be all things to all people instead of standing for something, that Dukakis lost. He showed himself to be about nothing more than his own ambition, and he killed his chances.
Which is exactly, I'd wager, what Mitt Romney is doing right now.