Commentary Magazine


Why the Democrats Lost Again

In the weeks before election day, as George Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis grew more certain, it seemed likely that this defeat would finally be the one to persuade the Democrats to examine their ways. The loss would be the Democratic party’s fifth in the last six presidential elections, and once again the margin would not even be close. This, moreover, would be a loss to a Republican candidate who had been widely derided, and whose negative ratings early in the presidential year were unusually high (more than 40 percent in some surveys).

During the presidential primaries, commented Newsweek, “Democrats said nightly prayers for [Bush's] success” because he “seemed a beguilingly easy target.” Not only had those prayers been answered, but the “target” became still easier to hit after Bush selected a running mate who, according to all polls, was a liability to his ticket. Even on the day after their defeat, the Democrats’ estimate of Bush seemed not to have risen by much. A Democratic pollster, Harrison Hickman, was quoted as saying: “If we couldn’t beat Bush, I don’t know who we can beat.” And the Texas Democratic leader, Jim Hightower, agreed: “By God, it’s awful we could not beat George Bush and Dan Quayle. They were perfect for us.”

Nevertheless, in the months since the Democrats lost the election by the hefty margin of 54 to 46, precious few of them have drawn the lesson that the party needs to alter what it is offering to the electorate if it hopes to win the White House in the foreseeable future. Instead, a rich though often disharmonious chorus has burst forth with a medley of rationalizations, all aiming to explain away defeat.

In retrospect, say some Democrats, theirs was a hopeless task, to run against peace and prosperity. Not that they give much credit for peace and prosperity to the policies of the outgoing administration. To hear many Democrats tell it, the Republicans were infuriatingly lucky to have been in the White House just when peace and prosperity descended by coincidence upon the land. Others argue that the peace and prosperity so beneficial to Bush’s campaign were in fact illusory commodities. As Lloyd Bentsen put it in the vice-presidential debate: “If you let me write two hundred billion dollars’ worth of hot checks every year, I could give you an illusion of prosperity, too.”

The trouble with this argument is that eight years ago, before Reaganomics was tried, neither Lloyd Bentsen nor any other Democrat had come forward to tell the voters that they could have both low inflation and low unemployment, as well as sustained and healthy levels of growth, if they were willing to tolerate higher deficits. On the contrary, the typical Democratic attitude (as expressed in a New Republic editorial published the week after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory) was this:

We fear that Reagan’s apparent agenda of 10-percent tax cuts, 9-percent defense increases, and 2-percent federal budget cuts will result instead in superheated inflation of a kind that . . . may cause Reagan to resort to wage and price controls.

But whether it was reality or illusion, the country, as the New Republic’s Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out, was no less prosperous or less at peace back in July when Dukakis led Bush by 17 points in the polls than on election day.

A second theme was that the election had turned not on substantive issues but on tactics and technique. As the liberal activist Mark Green put it: “Baker-Ailes beat Sasso-Estrich in a war of tactics, handlers, ads, and sound-bites.” Maybe; but as it happens, the single most important tactical decision of the campaign was the choice of running mates, and on this one the Democrats won by a mile.

Others did not credit the Republicans’ tactics so much as lament the Democrats’. The election analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute called Dukakis’s effort “the worst campaign I have ever seen.” Democratic Senator Terry Sanford (North Carolina) went further, saying, “The Democratic effort has been the worst-managed campaign in this century.”

These lamentations create a sense of déjà vu. Democrats had earlier said the same things about the Mondale (1984), Carter (1980), and McGovern (1972) campaigns. Nor do such alibis explain how, if Dukakis was such a poor campaigner, he had managed to secure the presidential nomination by handily beating all the other Democratic aspirants. In fact, throughout most of 1988 the impression Dukakis and his team made was one of tactical mastery. Here is E.J. Dionne, Jr., the New York Times’s campaign correspondent, writing at the time of the Democratic convention:

No one who has watched Mr. Dukakis this year, as he transformed himself from one of the Democratic “seven dwarfs” into the midsummer favorite for the White House, will doubt his strategic and tactical sense or that of his advisers, headed by the formidable Susan Estrich. . . .

Still another post-election refrain suggested that the Democrats had not really lost at all, or had hardly lost. Thus, Michael Kinsley of the New Republic referred to “Michael Dukakis’s very respectable 46 percent to 54 percent finish” as “a loss this close.” This, of a margin not far short of the ten percentage points which according to Newsweek constitute the traditional definition of a landslide. (Exit polls showed that Senator Quayle’s unpopularity had cost Bush the difference.)

Then there were those who dismissed the electoral outcome by emphasizing the low voter turnout The Nation editorialized:

Only about half the eligible electorate went to the polls November 8 . . . the half-nation that votes is not what statisticians would call a random sampling. . . . [It] is heavily skewed toward the rich and the well educated, the white and the conservative. . . . Factoring out the gender gap and the minorities gap from the turnout figures, the electoral equation brutally belies the myth that “the American people” gave Bush his victory.

Yet the New York Times and CBS News tested the impact of voter turnout by polling a single sample of voters both before and after the election to record the preferences of those who failed to vote. On the basis of this survey, the Times reported that if everyone had voted, Bush would have won by an even larger margin—about 11 percentage points.

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In making little of their presidential defeat the Democrats do have a more telling case in pointing to the victory they scored on the legislative side, where they marginally enhanced existing majorities in both the House and Senate. No sure explanation exists for this dichotomy in electoral behavior. William Schneider, another election analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that “the higher the political office, the more ideology matters”; pointing to the easy reelection victory of Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who is one of the Senate’s most liberal members but whose state went heavily for Bush, Schneider says, “If Metzenbaum was on the presidential ticket he not only would have gotten creamed, he wouldn’t have carried Ohio.” And the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has noted that when voters are asked about it in surveys they state an explicit preference for divided government—a President of one party and a Congress of the other—in, perhaps, an expression of the ingrained American mistrust of strong government.

Another line of post-election Democratic rationalization held the electorate at fault, on the grounds of either its stupidity or its cupidity. Robert Reich of Harvard maintained that whereas Ronald Reagan had conditioned Americans to want a “national toastmaster” for a President, “the tragedy of Michael Dukakis is that he wanted to be chief executive.” The columnist Ellen Goodman, seconded by Hendrik Hertzberg, suggested that Dukakis suffered from an “irrational belief in reason,” and Marvin Kalb (formerly of CBS-TV and now at the Kennedy School at Harvard) was reportedly of the opinion that Dukakis lost because he was too principled.

Meanwhile, on the cupidity front, Newsweek concluded that “Bush’s victory seemed less a personal endorsement than a pocketbook vote.” This was a reprise of the main theme of the presidential post-mortems of 1984, according to which Reagan’s reelection was largely an expression of the electorate’s “greed.” In a reverse twist on the same idea, Tom Wicker of the New York Times complained that “The Republicans have been blinding too many voters to their economic self-interest with dramatic appeals to their patriotism and ‘traditional values.’”

In sum, if the voters voted Republican because they thought they would be better off, they were being piggish. If, regardless of self-interest, they voted Republican because they preferred the GOP’s values, they were being pigheaded.

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But the main melody sung by the Democratic chorus was that Bush had won by running a dirty campaign, a campaign of “fear and smear” and of “lies,” as Dukakis himself characterized it Dukakis’s charges were endorsed during the campaign itself by numerous commentators and news reporters. On ABC’s Nightline, Ted Koppel confided to Dukakis that Bush had taken the lead “by kicking you in the groin.” Anthony Lewis of the New York Times charged Bush with “nativism,” “McCarthy tactics,” and “lying.” Richard Cohen of the Washington Post asserted that Bush’s tactics “may have changed the tone of presidential campaigns forever”—that is, for the worse. Kathleen Hall Jamie-son, an obscure professor of communications at the University of Texas, achieved instant celebrity by serving up to reporters such quotable pronouncements as “The Bush advisers believe they can distort with impunity” and “What is so frightening about this is that many of us were naive in thinking that the nation as a whole was adequately protected from this kind of campaigning.”

Laced into the charges of dirty campaigning was the notion of “racism.” According to Newsweek, in late October “Dukakis campaign leader John Sasso asked [Jesse] Jackson to attack the Bush camp for ‘racist’ tactics.” Jackson obliged handsomely, decrying Bush’s television ads on the Massachusetts prison-furlough program as “designed to create the most horrible psychosexual fears.” This apparently convinced Hendrik Hertzberg—Bush, he wrote, “quite openly exploited primitive racial-sexual fears”—as well as Hertz-berg’s colleague Michael Kinsley, to whom the furlough issue “taps into a thick vein of racial paranoia.” Kinsley, in turn, would seem to have found a reader in NBC’s Bryant Gumbel, who a couple of days later reported that Bush “tapped a rather rich vein of American racism.” While most of the proliferating accusations of racism stemmed from the furlough issue, the Washington Post’s Juan Williams rested his case on different grounds: “Bush attacks the American Civil Liberties Union for defending criminals, appealing to the white perception that blacks are responsible for virtually all violent crime.”

More original still was the allegation that the Bush campaign was not merely racist but “nativist”—anti-immigrant and anti-Greek. Pride of authorship here belongs to the novelist Philip Roth, who wrote that Bush “is highly sensitive to, and sometimes, perhaps, like millions of Americans, guiltily discomfited by, the physical signs of ethnic or racial difference.” In his attack on Dukakis’s veto of a bill requiring the recital of the pledge of allegiance, Bush was aiming, wrote Roth, “to stir up xenophobic longings for pure, homogeneous, picket-fence America.” This esoteric charge was soon reiterated by Anthony Lewis, Hendrik Hertzberg, Mark Green, and others, including Dukakis’s mother. By the time the election was over, it had entered so firmly into the conventional wisdom that Newsweek could assert flatly that Bush’s “message was nationalist and nativist, a thinly coded way of suggesting that Dukakis was less than 100-percent American.”

None of those who denounced Bush for “nativism” and anti-Greek bias paused to recall that the last candidate on a national ticket to hammer away at the symbols of partiotism was an American of Greek ancestry named Spiro Agnew. In reality, Bush’s obvious target was not the fact of Dukakis’s ancestral roots in Greece but his more recent roots in the environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a stance of critical detachment toward one’s country is taken as a mark of enlightenment. Such an attitude often seems especially inexplicable to first-, second-, or third-generation Americans, whose patriotism is usually fired by an appreciation of the refuge and opportunity afforded them by the United States. Far from being the subliminal butt of the “pledge” issue, these ethnic voters, who constitute a critical swing group (in contrast to Wasps, who are heavily Republican), were surely intended to respond to it positively.

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The accusations of “racism” were similarly unfounded. Racism does remain a pernicious feature of our social landscape; but the fact is that for over two decades now, according to a wealth of survey research, prejudice against blacks has steadily diminished. Moreover, the one modern presidential election in which the rights and welfare of blacks were a pivotal issue, perhaps the pivotal issue, was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson, the champion of civil rights, defeated Barry Goldwater, the champion of states’ rights, by the biggest landslide in Democratic-party history.

William Safire of the New York Times, in an anlysis that could buttress the “racism” thesis, speculated that Dukakis’s campaign foundered because of the special place given to Jesse Jackson at the Democratic convention. But Satire’s thesis flies in the face of available survey data. The Dukakis campaign peaked, at leads of 17 and 18 percentage points, in the days following the Democratic convention; the decline came later. Furthermore, although some voters were undoubtedly “turned off” by Jesse Jackson, there is no evidence that race was the decisive factor here, as against his position on the Left fringe of American politics or his anti-Semitic utterances and associations, his revivalist style, and his checkered history. If the Democratic convention had accorded a similar degree of prominence and honor to, say, Jane Fonda, can anyone doubt that the party would have paid a price for it?

Actually, the obsequiousness displayed toward Jackson at the convention was perfectly symbolic of the new racial ethos of the Democratic party. For almost two decades now, both in their own internal procedures and in the public policies they have fostered, the Democrats, in the name of “affirmative action,” have championed preferential treatment of blacks. Suppose a voter were opposed to this, adhering instead to the colorblind principle articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Would this make him, ipso facto, a racist?

During the campaign, the “racism” issue coalesced around Bush’s attacks on the Massachusetts prison-furlough program and in particular around the case of Willie Horton, a murderer who escaped while on furlough and committed a brutal assault and rape upon a Maryland couple. Although advertisements by the Bush campaign proper mentioned neither Horton’s name nor his race, in ads run by independent groups supporting Bush there were pictures of Horton, revealing him to be black. Did this make him seem the more menacing to some viewers? Perhaps so, but the implication that voters hate blacks per se more than they fear criminals, or that weekend passes for murderers and other forms of coddling felons would stir little protest if the convicts were white, is absurd. The state of Maryland is currently being convulsed by a scandal: a rehabilitation-oriented penal institution is in danger of being closed down by legislators irate over the discovery that weekend furloughs were granted to a triple murderer, and work release to a rapist suspected of having used the occasion to commit another rape. Both convicts were white, and, to boot, the murderer was upper-class while the victim of his most heinous killing was black. But the people of Maryland—surprise?—are outraged nevertheless.

Just as the charges of racism and nativism were nonsensical, so there was little to buttress the wider accusation that Bush had run a dirty campaign, or even, as NBC’s Jim Vance suggested, one of the dirtiest campaigns in U.S. history. Writing in Public Opinion, Suzanne Garment has reminded us that in the early days of the Republic, campaign mud was flung much more freely: John Adams, for example, was charged with having put his running mate to the chore of procuring mistresses, while Andrew Jackson was charged with “gambling, cock-fighting, . . . slave-trading, drunkenness, theft, lying.” The columnist Suzanne Fields has recalled Harry Truman’s allegation that the “clique” behind Thomas Dewey were “the same men who delivered us Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo.”

And if the Bush campaign was no dirtier or even less dirty than some in American history, more importantly it was no dirtier than his rival’s. Not only did Dukakis aides recklessly spread the charges of racism and nativism, they accused Bush of marital infidelity on the basis of rumors no news organization was able to substantiate. Dukakis himself charged Bush with “McCarthyism,” and with being “unfit for the presidency.” He linked Bush vaguely to Watergate, to the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and to various scandals in the Reagan/Bush administration. “A fish rots from the head,” he said, insinuatingly. Among Dukakis supporters, Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta likened Bush to Hitler and Goebbels, and according to the Washington Post’s David Broder, Democrats “passed out flyers identifying Ayatollah Khomeini as ‘George Bush’s friend.’” When it came to impugning people’s patriotism, moreover, Dukakis himself proved no slouch: noting reports that some Bush advisers had worked for the government of the Bahamas, he commented that “In a Dukakis White House, the staff will pledge allegiance to only one flag: Old Glory.” And on the “nativism” front, it was the Dukakis campaign that fielded a television ad featuring the Japanese national symbol, a rising sun, as a looming threat to America.

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In Calling Bush guilty of “smears” and “lies,” Dukakis had in mind the effort of the Bush campaign to paint him as a “liberal” of the up-to-date, Massachusetts variety. Dukakis wished to avoid being so identified. On three main issues—the furlough program, the pledge of allegiance, and membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—he sought to explain his behavior as devoid of ideological implications. But on the specifics of these three issues, as well as on the general point, Bush’s version was the more truthful.

Dukakis pointed out, for example, that Massachusetts was not alone in having a furlough program. Other state governments and the federal government have them, too, and murderers have been furloughed in many of these jurisdictions, including by the federal government under Reagan/Bush and by California when Reagan was governor; and some of those furloughed have taken the opportunity to commit new crimes. Dukakis also pointed out that the Massachusetts program had been adopted under his Republican predecessor, and that under his own administration its scope had been restricted.

All of this was narrowly accurate but misleading. The essential point is that Massachusetts has furlough provisions more liberal than those of the federal government and all but a few states; that these and related penal questions have been hot issues in Massachusetts; and that Governor Dukakis has been a force for leniency.

In his first year in office, Governor Dukakis vetoed a bill reestablishing the death penalty, leaving life imprisonment without possibility of parole as the most severe penalty in Massachusetts. The next year the legislature voted to prohibit furloughs for first-degree murderers, but Dukakis used a pocket veto to kill the bill. In part as a result of these two vetoes, Massachusetts was left in the unique position of authorizing furloughs for prisoners serving life-without-parole, a practice that cannot be justified by the normal rationale for furlough programs, namely, to help prepare prisoners for their release. Even after Willie Horton’s crimes in Maryland made Massachusetts headlines in 1987, legislative allies of the governor blocked a tightening of the furlough law; it was not until 1988 that Dukakis, under mounting public pressure, finally announced he would not veto such a measure, and in the spring he signed one that had passed the legislature by a wide margin.

As is by now well known, Dukakis also vetoed a bill that would have required Massachusetts schoolteachers to lead students in the pledge of allegiance. He argued that he had no choice in the matter, since an advisory opinion by the Massachusetts Supreme Court had held the bill to be unconstitutional. Bush’s assertion that he would have signed such a law only proved, said Dukakis, that Bush was “unfit” to be President. But according to L. Gordon Crovitz, who investigated the story for the Wall Street Journal, Dukakis had indicated his own prior opposition to the pledge requirement in his request for the court’s opinion. The Massachusetts court acknowledged in its opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court had not ruled directly on the issue in this form, so its decision necessarily reflected its own judicial philosophy—a liberal one, thanks in part to Dukakis’s appointments. And the advisory opinion, weaker than a case decision, was not binding on the governor (whose veto was in any event overridden by the legislature).

All these facts go to show that the pledge decision reflected Dukakis’s political views, not merely a more or less reluctant determination to execute his legal duties. Of course there was no reason to believe that Dukakis was against the pledge in itself. Contrary to the demagogic implication of Bush’s rhetorical question, “What is it about the pledge of allegiance that upsets him so much?,” Dukakis was merely against requiring teachers to lead it. But considering some of the reasons advanced by teachers for objecting—in the words of the Massachusetts attorney general, “because they believe the phrase, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ which is part of the pledge, is untrue”—it is clear that heavy political freight was being carried by this seemingly procedural issue of civil liberties.

Which brings us to the ACLU. Since the preservation of civil liberty itself is predicated on the distinction between procedure and substance (“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”), it behooves a civil-liberties association to be especially vigilant in avoiding wider questions of public policy. So the ACLU once was. But twenty years ago—during the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike, to be precise—the ACLU began to convert itself from a civil-liberties group into an all-purpose combat organization for “progressive” causes. In that conflict the ACLU decided that the cause of “black power” deserved precedence over the principle of due process in the firing of public-school teachers, a principle traditionally defended by civil libertarians.

In the years since, the ACLU has continued down the path of Left-liberal advocacy, agitating against U.S. policy in Vietnam and, later, Central America; joining in efforts to weaken America’s overseas intelligence activities; and carrying even its narrowly civil-libertarian concerns to absurd extremes—for instance, in defending child pornography as a form of free speech and espousing decriminalization of all drug use. Indeed, there is probably no other organization whose evolution so perfectly expresses the transformation of liberalism in the last two decades. Small wonder that Bush seized on Dukakis’s boast of membership in the ACLU as a symbol of his liberal inclinations.

In sum, although Democrats and journalists complained that, in the words of Time, “Little can justify Bush’s cynical exploitation of the pseudo-issues of crime and patriotism,” Bush’s strategists recognized that if they could successfully identify Dukakis as the type of liberal who does not get worked up about law-and-order and patriotism, they would influence many voters against him. Are voters not entitled to choose on such a basis?

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What made the approach of the Bush campaign so effective was not merely that it was negative—indeed it was, though not much more so than the Dukakis campaign—but that it reversed the traditional roles of insurgent and incumbent. Incumbents have many advantages, but they must defend their record’s, while they can be criticized not only for their own errors but also for whatever else went wrong during their tenure. For an incumbent to go on the attack is risky because it suggests that he wants to steer attention away from his record. Jimmy Carter tried this strategy in 1980 and got himself into trouble. James Reston of the New York Times called Carter’s campaign “vicious and personal,” and Time concluded that his “tactics boomer-ang[ed].” But Bush succeeded in his determination, as William Schneider put it, to “turn the election from a referendum on Bush into a referendum on Dukakis.” Why?

One hypothesis has it that a key liability of Bush’s was the perception that he was weak—the famous “wimp factor.” While a Carter attacking seemed mean, a Bush attacking seemed tough. Perhaps so; but a better explanation would point to substance rather than form. It may be that Bush’s attacks simply signaled to the electorate that he shared its values.

According to the New York Times, in July more voters answered no than yes (by a margin of 16 percentage points) to the question of whether Dukakis was “tough enough in dealing with crime and criminals.” This was before Bush’s attacks on the furlough program. By late October, after the furlough ads, voters more often still answered no than yes, but the margin had shrunk somewhat, to 13 percentage points. The really dramatic change, however, occurred in the responses to the identical question about Bush. In July the voters were more doubtful about Bush’s toughness on crime than about Dukakis’s; a plurality of 26 percentage points found Bush not “tough enough.” By October this had completely reversed; a solid majority found Bush “tough enough,” and by a whopping margin of 36 percentage points! In his attack on Dukakis, Bush seems to have convinced the voters that he hates crime as much as they do.

It has also been said that the reason Bush’s negative tactics were so effective was that Dukakis did not respond, or did not respond quickly enough. But conventional wisdom has usually held that candidates ought to be wary of replying to such attacks lest they permit their opponents to set the agenda. In any case, Dukakis did respond fairly soon, and the strategy of his response was of a piece with his earlier strategy of delay.

“At first,” the New York Times quoted one of Dukakis’s aides, “we used to read this [Bush] stuff and laugh and say, How can this be, why would people take this seriously?” Then, when the Dukakis camp realized that the Bush attacks were hurting, it countered with a series of ads depicting Bush’s tacticians as a covey of media manipulators cynically seducing the electorate by talking about furloughs and the pledge instead of the “real issues.” Implicitly, these ads told the voters to stop being so dumb. But the problem was that the voters understood Dukakis better than he understood them. His very insistence that crime and permissiveness and patriotism were not real issues only confirmed what Bush was saying about him.

How else could Dukakis have replied? Writing in Time, Garry Wills recommended that:

On the Horton issue, Dukakis should have had a panel of penologists appearing to explain the nation’s furlough systems, their risks and rewards as proved over time, and comparing the various state and federal programs with the Massachusetts one. On the ACLU, Dukakis should have appeared with officers of that organization and joked about all the times they had disagreed in the past, while asserting that what makes America great is the preservation of free discussion and advocacy.

The fecklessness of such advice—how many votes would it have retrieved?—only serves to highlight Dukakis’s problem. Bush had nailed him as a liberal, and that is what he was, and had long been.

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In 1968, as a young state legislator, Dukakis had led the Eugene McCarthy insurgents who ousted the old-line leadership of the Brookline Massachusetts Democratic party, and it was as the hero of the McCarthy movement that Dukakis first won nomination for statewide office, as the candidate for lieutenant governor in 1970. Now, almost two decades later, furloughs, the pledge, and the ACLU were hardly the only indicators of his continuing liberalism.

In domestic policy generally, Governor Dukakis’s record was summarized in an article signed by three Massachusetts activists that appeared in the “independent socialist weekly,” In These Times:

In three terms as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis has been an effective liberal reformer with a strong managerial bent Liberal groups have generally found Dukakis sympathetic to their causes and willing to devote state resources to solve social and economic problems of poor and working-class people, but often too willing to compromise—on regulation and taxes—for the sake of political consensus.

Dukakis also serves, together with leftists like Ron Dellums, Randall Forsberg, Eleanor Smeal, Jesse Jackson, and William Winpisinger, on the advisory board of the Jobs With Peace Campaign. Warning that “we are moving rapidly toward a permanent ‘war economy,’” this group proposes cutting the defense budget by $80 billion (about 25 percent) and shifting the funds to domestic social programs. When he was asked about this proposal in the second presidential debate, Dukakis replied: “I don’t happen to share that goal. It’s an example of how oftentimes we may be associated with organizations, all of whose particular positions we don’t support.” This response was disingenuous. The word “campaign” in the name Jobs With Peace Campaign is meant to stress that this is a single-issue group; the $80-billion transfer proposal is its one and only “particular position.”

In line with all this, Dukakis was an active supporter of the nuclear-freeze movement. He opposed not only the MX missile, supported by both Presidents Carter and Reagan, but also the Midgetman, the alternative to MX advanced mainly by Democratic military reformers. He had used his position as governor to block participation by Massachusetts in some aspects of U.S. nuclear-defense planning. He opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative. True, he sought to offset this by calling for a “conventional defense initiative,” but since conventional weapons are more expensive than nuclear weapons, and since he did not favor increasing the defense budget, the stance seemed little more than sloganeering.

A strong believer in arms control, Dukakis advocated a variety of proposals that went beyond the current U.S.-Soviet agenda. As the Washington Post reported, “Several of these proposals ‘reflect the thinking of the peace movement and the freeze movement, which hope to end the arms race, not simply regulate it,’ said David Cortright, a senior associate at SANE/Freeze, an anti-nuclear group.” More generally on relations with the Soviet Union, and again according to the Washington Post:

His aides say Dukakis, 54, seems a perfect match for Gorbachev, 57, because they are about the same age, and both are lawyers, face severe economic problems at home, and share similar beliefs in the theories of “interdependence” of nations today and of “reasonable sufficiency” in nuclear arms.

In other foreign-policy areas, Dukakis’s main theme was that the United States should rely more on the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and other international bodies. He criticized the American invasion of Grenada, the bombing of Libya, and the reflagging of tankers in the Persian Gulf. He strongly opposed U.S. military aid to the UNITA guerrillas in Angola, while repeatedly stating he “would not rule out” furnishing military aid to African National Congress guerrillas in South Africa. In Central America, he opposed aid to the contras, sometimes referring to them, in the Sandinistas’ derisive propaganda term, as “mercenaries.” Instead he said he supported the Arias peace plan; pressed by reporters on what he would do if the Sandinista government reneged on its pledges under the plan, Dukakis replied characteristically, “I would work with our democratic neighbors and allies in Central and Latin America.”

In addition to emphasizing reliance on international bodies, Dukakis often advocated issuing verbal “challenges” to adversaries. Thus he coupled his opposition to existing proposals for modernizing America’s intercontinental missile force with the idea that we “challenge the Soviet Union . . . to eliminate all of their SS-18s,” their largest, most deadly ICBM. Similarly, he joined his opposition to the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf with the proposal that we “challenge China and the Soviet Union . . . to stop the sale of long-range missiles to all countries in the Middle East.” In these formulas, the word “challenge” seemed calculated to give a hard-edged sound to proposals that boiled down to unilateral restraint on the part of the United States.

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That Dukakis’s liberalism was the source of his defeat is shown by a variety of survey data.1 During the summer, a Louis Harris poll asked voters whether they would prefer a President who was liberal, moderate, or conservative. Forty-one percent answered moderate, 40 percent conservative, and only 13 percent liberal. In a New York Times survey, only 15 percent of respondents described themselves as liberal, the lowest figure since the paper began asking this question.

Not surprisingly, then, as more voters came to see Dukakis as a liberal, support for his candidacy dropped. The proportion of voters so identifying him grew from 27 percent in July to 43 percent in October, while those viewing him as either a moderate or a conservative dropped from 51 percent to 40, all according to a CBS/New York Times poll. (During the same period the proportion viewing Bush as a conservative increased steadily although not very sharply.)

In October, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters whether they agreed that “Dukakis is too liberal to be a good President” or that “Bush is too conservative.” Twenty-five percent found Bush too conservative, while 37 percent found Dukakis too liberal. An ABC/Washington Post poll, worded slightly differently, found 31 percent calling Dukakis too liberal and 22 percent calling Bush too conservative. An election-day exit poll by CBS/New York Times produced a striking ideological symmetry: four-fifths of those voters calling themselves liberals voted for Dukakis, four-fifths of those calling themselves conservative voted for Bush, while those calling themselves moderates divided evenly. Dukakis’s problem? Only 18 percent of the voters called themselves liberal, while 33 percent said they were conservative.

In regarding Dukakis as too liberal, voters seemed to have in mind his positions both on domestic and on foreign policy. Indeed, while furloughs, the pledge, and the ACLU were the focal points of Bush’s attacks, there is some evidence to suggest that defense policy, which Bush also pressed, albeit somewhat less strongly, was Dukakis’s most salient vulnerability. In a CBS/ New York Times poll in late October, 41 percent of the likely electorate said that Dukakis would weaken the nation’s defenses, while only 3 percent said the same of Bush. When voters in that poll were asked to name the single most important issue, the economy was cited most often, followed by defense and foreign policy, with a constellation of social issues, including crime, much further down the list. A national exit poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times, which allowed voters to name more than one issue, found the budget deficit mentioned most frequently, followed closely by national defense, abortion, and crime. Yet national defense was clearly the most consequential because those who named other issues tended to divide between Bush and Dukakis by relatively small margins, 3 to 2 or 2 to 1, while those who named national defense broke for Bush almost 6 to 1.

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Dukakis was, of course, aware from the outset of the low regard in which voters have come to hold liberalism—hence his declaration in his acceptance speech that “this election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” And until the last days of the campaign, he spurned the label. “Ted, I’m not a liberal,” he said to Koppel on Nightline two weeks before election day.

Even amid the glow of the Democratic convention, savvy Democrats were aware that ideology posed a hazard to the campaign. The Washington Post reported:

Even among Northern delegates, the smell of victory is tempered by fears that Dukakis could get painted into a liberal corner—that the combination of his pro-choice stance on abortion, his support of gun control, his opposition to certain weapons systems, and the controversy over Massachusetts’ furlough program for criminals, could collectively be used by Bush to define the public’s as yet unformed image of Dukakis as unacceptably far to the Left.

. . . [A] member of Congress from a liberal district, fully confident that he will have little problem with Dukakis in his own territory, said, “Everyone here is very enthusiastic, but I think this is going to be a very tough contest. People just don’t know yet that Dukakis is an ACLU liberal with a funny-sounding name.”

The prescient Congressman was only slightly off-target. The electorate did already know Dukakis’s name. It was the ACLU part that it learned about later.

The Democrats tried to compensate for their vulnerability by careful attention to style. In 1984 the delegates had all waved American flags from the convention floor. This time, the Washington Post reported, “Their carefully controlled and staged convention strongly indicates that they understand what it was about their collective televised self-portrait that repelled and even frightened much of the nation” during past gatherings. The Post cited a member of the party’s national finance council who “gestured at her stylish silk dress and said with a wry smile: ‘Look at me. I look like a Republican. And I’m 60′s Woodstock. I haven’t seen a woman in polyester pants since I’ve been here.’”

But the Democrats were kidding themselves if they thought their problems stemmed from style; anyhow, they even had the style wrong. Many of the voters they had been losing to the Republicans wear a lot more polyester than silk.

Late in the campaign, his ratings down, Dukakis abruptly shifted tactics, declaring, “I’m a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy.” A day or two afterward, he added Lyndon Johnson to the list. The indecision over Johnson was indicative of the inherent weakness in Dukakis’s new line, for as I have noted, his own career on the state and national scene had been launched in the Eugene McCarthy insurgency against LBJ. The Republicans were quick to retort that Dukakis was in reality a liberal in the tradition of McGovern, Carter, and Mondale. Which in turn prompted some expressions of righteous indignation at the Republicans for attempting to redefine liberalism as McGovernism.

In all this there was high irony. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson were all liberal on economic issues, hawkish on foreign policy, and relatively conservative on social questions, except when it came to the cause of civil rights, which all four helped to advance, on the common understanding that it meant nondiscrimination against and equal opportunity for individuals. As for the new liberalism that congealed around the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972, it too was liberal on economic issues, although less devotedly so, but it was dovish on foreign policy and liberal on social issues; although supportive of civil rights, it reconceived these as preferential treatment or “affirmative action.”

A few Democrats, most notably Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, persevered in the older variant of liberal belief. They were quite willing to engage in terminological compromise, such as distinguishing between the “new liberalism” and “traditional liberalism,” or between “McGovern liberalism” and “Jackson liberalism.” But the McGovernites, and their sympathizers in the world of letters and journalism, would brook no sharing of the name. Senator Jackson and his ilk were relentlessly identified as “conservative Democrats” and sometimes as “Nixon Democrats.” Eventually, the McGovernites coined and popularized the term “neoconservative” to define the Jackson liberals. Although at first those so described resisted the label, over the years and one by one they gave up what seemed a hopeless semantic battle. The McGovernites’ victory was complete: henceforth, they alone would be known as liberals.

Now in 1988, in the week before the election, here were Dukakis and his supporters trying desperately to detach the word liberal from its McGovernite associations and reinvoke its earlier associations. That they railed was far from being the fault of Republican skullduggery, but rather was a case of chickens coming home to roost.

One national poll asked voters if they would describe Dukakis as a liberal in the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy tradition or in that of McGovern-Mondale. Twenty-one percent chose the former, while 34 percent chose the latter. McGovern himself concurred: “To repudiate the McGovern Democrats in 1988 is to repudiate what is now the mainstream of the Democratic party.” This is largely true, and to the extent it remains true (and barring, as some Democrats now wistfully dream, a major economic downturn), the White House is likely to continue to elude the party’s grasp.

_____________

 

After the election, many Democrats consoled themselves by arguing defiantly that Bush’s victory conveyed “no mandate.” On the Thursday following the Tuesday ballot, the New York Times editorialized that “Mr. Bush’s victory . . . cannot fairly be called a mandate.” Anthony Lewis wTote on the op-ed page that same day, “The remoteness of the 1988 campaign from the realities of government . . . has deprived George Bush of any mandate on major policy issues.” And a guest columnist, Norman Ornstein, completed the Times’s editorial-page offerings for that day by opining simply that Bush had “no mandate.” Ironically, in the same morning’s Times, a page-one news story reported a different conclusion: “The issues that Mr. Bush made his own—crime, strong national defense, and low taxes—were all cited in polls as central to those who said they had cast ballots for him.”

There was a familiar air to the “no mandate” verdict. Four years earlier, after the 1984 election (as Everett Carll Ladd reminds us), the editors of the Times had judged that “President Reagan’s lonely landslide is a personal victory with little precise policy mandate.” And after the 1980 election, the Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson had written:

Victorious presidential candidates always claim to have received a great mandate to carry out their promises after an election. Most of their claims are false. . . . Ronald Reagan’s victory was no different from the others in these respects. He won because of a pervasive feeling of national failures. . . .

There was some truth in Johnson’s argument—in 1980 the electorate had not merely chosen Reagan, it had rejected Carter—as there also was now in the contention that Bush had “no mandate.” But the truth contained little consolation for the Democrats; it lay in the fact that Bush, running a largely negative campaign, had won a mandate to continue on the path of the Reagan/Bush administration, and also a mandate not to be like Michael Dukakis.

_____________

 

In all these various ways, then, the majority of Democratic-party leaders have insisted on explaining their defeat by alibis rather than by reasons. A minority, however, have called on the party to recognize that it lost this presidential election on the basis of substance, and is likely to lose again unless it changes. This minority is grouped around the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM).

The DLC was founded after the 1984 election by Charles Robb, former governor of Virginia and now elected to the Senate, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. It is the body responsible for creating “super Tuesday,” having convinced the legislatures of Southern states to move their presidential primaries to a single date with the hope of providing a springboard for a moderate or conservative Democratic candidate. (The scheme backfired when Jesse Jackson emerged as a major beneficiary of those primaries.) CDM, with which I have a long affiliation, was founded after the 1972 election by supporters of “Scoop” Jackson and Hubert Humphrey in an effort to win the party back from McGovernism to their brand of liberalism.

The challenge that confronts these groups is daunting. The party will not alter course without a bruising internal fight. For one thing, many Democrats have concluded that the lesson of 1988 is that the party needs to be more rather than less bold about its liberal identity. Thus Tom Wicker:

Many failings have contributed to Michael Dukakis’s lagging campaign for President but one seems to be at the heart of the problem—the candidate’s long, lame, and basically unbelievable effort to deny that he and his party represent the great liberal tradition of the last half-century.

Since the election several op-ed articles have made the same point. And a formidable standard-bearer of this view exists in the person of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who declared a week after the election:

. . . my brother . . . embraced the “liberal” label without hesitation. . . . And I believe that if he had started campaigning that way a few weeks earlier this fall, Mike Dukakis and not George Bush would be taking the oath of office next January. . . . There’s nothing wrong with liberalism in America or with the Democratic party that 1992 won’t cure.

In addition to die-hard liberals of the Wicker and Kennedy stripe, a still more formidable obstacle looms in the path of those who would change the party’s course—namely, Jesse Jackson and his supporters. They made their mark in 1984 and strengthened their position in 1988, when Jackson ran second in the primaries. After the primaries, said the Washington Post, Dukakis’s supporters and Jackson’s “work[ed] in close harmony . . . in setting up a carefully choreographed program for [the] Democratic National Convention.” And at the convention, Jackson was given such a central position that the ticket was presented almost as a troika. His convention manager Ron Brown exulted, “I don’t think any second-place finisher ever got to play as important a role.”

Already, Jackson is off and running for 1992. He told the Chicago Sun-Times days before the election:

If Michael Dukakis loses on Tuesday the next political season will begin on Wednesday. . . . I came within a stone’s throw of winning my party’s nomination. . . . The full scope of my leadership has yet to blossom and flourish.

His one-quarter share of the 1988 convention delegates should assure him a roughly similar share of seats on the Democratic National Committee.

Moreover, Jackson has a cadre of grass-roots activists, organized partly through the vehicle of the Rainbow Coalition, that no other grouping or leader in the Democratic party can match. His candidacy has galvanized the American hard Left into electoral activity as never since the 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace. But what makes the Rainbow far more promising than the Wallace effort is Jackson’s mass base in the black electorate. The excitement this causes on the Left was expressed recently by Andrew Kopkind of the Nation:

Whether the Democratic hierarchy likes it or not, Jackson became the leader of the party on November 9, and he is already its front-runner for the nomination in 1992. Let’s make it clear right away that the struggle between now and then will be determined by the I-word: ideology.

_____________

 

Who among today’s Democrats will have the stomach to take these people on? Throughout the 1988 primaries the Democrats staged literally dozens of debates, and yet, as Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, rarely was Jackson challenged on matters of substance by any of his competitors. When Senator Al Gore of Tennessee finally had the temerity to do so in the friendly environs of New York, he was castigated by the party chairman, Paul Kirk. New York Mayor Ed Koch’s attacks on Jackson brought down the wrath of Governor Mario Cuomo, former party chairman Robert Strauss, and so many others that Koch humbly recanted. And when the primary race boiled down to a contest between Dukakis and Jackson, Dukakis continued to insist that there was little substantive disagreement betweeen them.

Now the party has dug a deeper hole for itself by its cynical exploitation of the “racism” charge against the Republicans. The same reckless charge will cut even deeper within the party, and Jackson knows just how to use it to insulate himself and his extreme policy positions from criticism. He said to William Raspberry of the Washington Post after the election, “Calling me a leftist is just another way of saying ‘nigger.’”

Even without the Jackson factor, shifting the Democrats’ course would take an enormous fight. During the years that the McGovernite liberals won the party over to their position, they engaged in fierce and relentless polemics against their adversaries. Beginning with the late Allard Lowenstein’s “Dump Johnson” movement, the McGovernites challenged incumbent Democratic officeholders in scores of primaries, without regard to whether this divisive tactic would result in a seat being lost to the Republicans. Every Democratic officeholder knew that he had to choose between joining the McGovemites or having to fight a primary battle for each reelection.

Once in Congress the McGovemites overrode seniority in order to impose their discipline on the Democratic caucus. Thus in the early 1980′s the moderate Congressman Gus Yatron, though no hawk, was toppled from the chairmanship of the House subcommittee dealing with Latin America for insufficient zeal in opposing Reagan administration policies, and was replaced by the reliably zealous Michael Barnes. When Barnes gave up his seat, the chairmanship passed without protest to Congressman George Crockett who has a long record of support for Communist causes. In 1987, Congressman Les Aspin, the highly respected chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was nearly unseated for having voted for aid to the contras, an indiscretion he did not repeat. Analogous pressures have been brought to bear, perhaps less directly, on House Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Leader Tom Foley, both of whom were once officers of CDM.

It is hard to imagine the Democratic conservatives or moderates undertaking factional warfare against these forces. Consider the case of Bruce Babbitt After co-founding the Democratic Leadership Council, he next made his presence felt on the national political stage as an outspoken opponent of aid to the contras. Then he ran for President, and when his campaign faltered, he threw his support implicitly to Jesse Jackson. As soon as the election was over, he was once more calling upon the party to move to the Center.

This year, the DLC has come up with one of its first foreign-policy recommendations: some form of national service for the nation’s youth. Not very bold stuff, this; and as if to underscore the point, for its spokesman on the issue the DLC has enlisted Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, one of the Senate’s most liberal members.

The DLC’s problem is exemplified by its “super Tuesday” program. It was easy to go into the friendly terrain of Southern state legislatures to request a change in primary dates, painless to seek a panacea for the party’s ills by tinkering once again with the nominating rules. Perhaps the party could be saved without a frontal challenge to its dominant liberal wing? But then, having set an example of caution itself, the DLC could not find a single candidate of its own kind to enter the primaries and to take advantage of the springboard it had created.

As for CDM, it, unlike the DLC, has always had the stomach for a fight. But although CDM has rallied some Democratic legislators for tough votes on contra aid, almost none since “Scoop” Jackson has been willing to join it in internecine combat against the party’s Left.

_____________

 

Moving the party back to the Center will require not only a direct challenge to its current orthodoxy, but a challenge based on substance. It will not suffice to criticize the liberal position merely for being impolitic. The McGovemites transformed the party by waging an impassioned struggle on behalf of deeply felt causes—antiwar, affirmative action, reform. They will only be beaten by Democrats who believe just as passionately in other causes: freedom abroad, equal rights (not preferential treatment) at home, a strong defense, and renewed respect for such “middle-class” values as keeping murderers locked up in prison.

At this juncture, the political horizon is murkier than usual. But what is clearly perceptible is that the forces now organizing to pull the Democrats down the suicidal path of the British Labor party seem stronger and more determined than those ready to push the party back toward the Center. The lessons of defeat could prove salutary, but first those lessons must be absorbed, and then they must be translated into policy. Unless and until that happens, the Democrats will continue to be rejected as unqualified to lead the nation.

 

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 I am indebted for much of this information to Public Opinion, and in particular to its managing editor karlyn keen.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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