Last Friday’s “Question Time” crystallized Barack Obama’s goals as President, and how he perceives his mandate for “Change.” Like 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Mike Dukakis, Obama believes something is deeply wrong with the practice of politics in the United States, and wants to fix it. For Dukakis, this meant running an issue-driven campaign that avoided negative attacks. Dukakis even refused to “sink” to negative ads after his opponent, George H.W. Bush, falsely attacked him over African-American rapist Willie Horton, and blamed him for the polluted Boston Harbor that the Reagan Administration refused to clean up. Voters saw the idealistic Dukakis’s refusal to fight back as a weakness, and he lost a winnable race.
President Obama also aspires to change the way politics is played, saying he is tired of questions masquerading as talking points, and of “tactics” substituting for the best policies. Like Dukakis, he wants the two parties to engage in national policy debates, where the best ideas prevail. Unfortunately, that’s not how politics works in the United States, and Obama’s misguided idealism is costing his base dearly.
I’ve noted similarities between Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis for some time, but last Friday’s Obama-House GOP debate clinched the comparison. While Dukakis sought to elevate the tone and substance of presidential campaigns, Obama seeks to change the climate in Washington DC by governing through spirited “bipartisan” policy debates rather than the “gotcha” politics that have long prevailed.
The Dukakis Precedent
1988 was supposed to be the Democrats’ year. The backlash against President Reagan and fellow Republicans led Democrats to regain the Senate in 1986, and the combination of the Savings & Loan and Iran-Contras scandals left the country hungering for change.
Mike Dukakis rode his “Massachusetts Miracle” to the Democratic presidential nomination, and after the Convention one poll gave him a 17-point lead over Bush. But once the campaign got in full swing, Bush’s campaign chief Lee Atwater went after Dukakis with a vengeance, vowing to “strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate.”
Dukakis disliked the negative tone of American elections, and felt that his presidential campaign should be a model for substantive, issue-driven politics. Despite the pleading of his supporters, Dukakis refused to aggressively fight off Bush’s attacks, or to “sink” to Bush’s level.
Unfortunately, too many voters saw this as a sign of weakness, and Dukakis as an arrogant elitist who felt he was too “pure” to do what was necessary to win.
The 1988 Dukakis campaign became the anti-model for future Democratic campaigns. After cheering Bill Clinton’s going toe to toe with Bush in 1992, Democrats then watched disapprovingly as Al Gore in 2000 used kid gloves against George W. Bush, and for the same lofty reasons that led to Dukakis’ defeat.
Obama Brings Dukakis Idealism to White House
Barack Obama proved a fighting campaigner, never giving an inch to opponents and not hesitating to go on the offensive against Hillary Clinton and then John McCain. But some articles foreshadowed that a President Obama could be less interested in “fighting” opponents than in achieving a spirit of conciliation.
Our Paul Hogarth’s January 2007 review
of The Audacity of Hope
stated, “Throughout the book, I found myself continuously frustrated by Obama’s deference to Republicans and the excesses of the Bush Administration – as he gives the opposition a certain aura of credibility that they simply do not deserve.”
Hogarth also noted, “Obama is an eternal idealist who longs for a time when political opponents can disagree without being disagreeable – as he deplores the partisanship that plagues Washington.”
Like Dukakis in 1988, Obama does not want to defeat Republicans on the issues by either demonizing them, threatening them, or using a process – such as reconciliation – that Republicans deem unfair. Obama does not want to “sink” to the level of FOX News or Rush Limbaugh, as his agenda for “Change” centers on his commitment to engage in a process of politics that avoids negative attacks and sticks to the high road.
Sadly, Obama’s idealism will have no happier end for Democrats than it did for Dukakis in 1988. In fact, some are already suggesting
that Obama would be better off with a Republican-controlled Congress, as this would require the bipartisanship he so desires.
So while Dukakis’ idealism cost him the presidency, Obama’s empowers the enemies of progressive politics. And while Obama’s popularity benefits from his non-confrontational approach – he remains a shoo-in for re-election – the millions of immigrants facing deportation, the large numbers unemployed in our inner cities, the many near retirement age who lack adequate pensions, the young people unable to afford college, and those forced by economic necessity to risk their lives in Afghanistan, are among the many paying a steep price for electing a President more focused on process than results.
Randy Shaw is also author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century