TCS Daily

Is It 1988 Again?

By James Pinkerton - May 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The Democrats will nominate a dark-haired fellow from Massachusetts as their presidential candidate, and the Republicans have picked as their standard-bearer a Texan named Bush. How many times do we have to watch this picture? Will the story in 2004 turn out differently than it did in 1988? And will an angry consumer-advocate-turned-presidential-spoiler strike one more blow against the establishment?

I have a certain perspective on this question. I was the director of research for George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign back then -- yup, I'm the one who oversaw the effort to dig into Michael Dukakis' gubernatorial record. Following the lead of Al Gore, who first raised the issue of "weekend passes" for incarcerated first-degree murderers in his primary campaign against Dukakis, I helped introduce the issue of prison furloughs for convicted murderers to a public that was at first baffled, then outraged, by the Bay State practice. And while not everyone liked the campaign, it worked with the voters; the elder Bush was 17 points down in April, but he won by eight points in November.

And while it might be tempting to dwell on the impact of negative advertising, the reality is that the 2004 campaign, like the 1988 campaign, will be shaped by many variables. Of these, I can see five similarities that remind me of '88, as well as five differences.

The first similarity is the cultural cleavage between Texas and Massachusetts, now expanded into the familiar red-state/blue-state dichotomy. The Bay State can claim credit for having been in the vanguard of many issues over the centuries -- the American Revolution, abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam protest and, eventually, gay marriage -- but it has usually been a long, lonely struggle. That is, it's been a struggle against states such as Texas, which has often been found athwart Massachusetts on most issues since the Civil War. And while the Lone Star State lost that struggle, it has won its share since, having propelled three presidents into the White House in the past four decades. Today, Texas, buckle of the Bible Belt, anchor of the Sunbelt, is the psychic heart of the Republican Party -- which defines itself, in no small measure, by its opposition to the likes of Teddy Kennedy, Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill.

The second similarity is between Dukakis and Kerry. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, liberals. Dukakis went to Iowa in 1987 and bragged that he was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." That proclamation was good politics back home in Brookline, as well as with the activists who showed up for the caucuses, but those words -- carefully noted by the Bush Oppo team -- weren't so well received by the country as a whole. As for Kerry, his two decades in the U.S. Senate have placed him firmly on the left side of the spectrum; it was not Karl Rove who declared him to be "the most liberal senator" in 2003, but rather the nerdily authoritative National Journal.

Third, this Bush campaign, too, is on the offensive -- the nice way of saying they're going negative. Dick Cheney says Kerry has given Americans "ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security," even as surrogates such as Tom DeLay go up to the edge of calling Kerry a weak-sister appeaser. Meanwhile, blitz-intense Bush TV ads paint Kerry as a tax-hiker and defense-cutter, with tens of millions of dollars' worth of negativity still to come.

Fourth, there's a weird likeness between the Bush running mates; for very different reasons, both Dan Quayle and Cheney have been considered drags on the ticket. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Bush's approval/disapproval rating is 49:43, which is bad enough -- but Cheney's rating is 39:42. Some might argue that it would be worse for Bush if Cheney were to leave the ticket this summer, but like Quayle before him, it's impossible to argue that Cheney isn't a political liability.

The fifth similarity to 1988 is the presence of an "iron law" that's supposed to predict the election. Today, George W. Bush is running roughly even with John Kerry. But political buzzsters are noting that Bush's approval rating has dipped below 50; according to Gallup, no president since World War II has won re-election after falling below 50 in an election year. That's an interesting iron law, but I learned firsthand in '88 that iron laws are absolutely predictive -- right up until the moment that they are broken. In that year, George H.W. Bush broke another such law: the "Van Buren Curse," the 152-year phenomenon, ever since 1836, which held that no incumbent vice president could win a national election to succeed the president he had been serving. The Van Buren Curse made a certain amount of sense -- vice presidents were seen as subordinates, not leaders, in the minds of voters -- but Bush "became his own man" in '88, winning 40 states. And, what about '04? Bush's low approval rating shows he's in a heap of trouble, but if Kerry's ratings are even lower -- if he's in a bigger heap of trouble -- Bush might yet win.

Now for the differences.

The first distinction is that whereas Vice President Bush was the quasi-incumbent in 1988, President Bush is the real thing in 2004. And a look back at history shows that elected presidents are usually reelected. Of the 13 elected presidents who have sought reelection since 1900, nine were re-elected, just four were not. The logic among voters seems to be, "Give him time to finish the job" -- a second four-year hitch. Indeed, only once since 1896 has a party won the White House and then lost it after just four years. That is, even when a party elected a president to a single term -- for example, Warren G. Harding in 1920 -- he was followed by another elected president from the same party. Once again, the logic is similar: "Give the party time to finish the job." The single exception to this rule is the election of President Carter in 1976; he and his party were defeated in 1980.

Second, Kerry is a more complicated figure than Dukakis. Sixteen years ago, the Massachusetts governor was not well known nationally until he ran for the presidency. He presented himself as a post-George McGovern/Walter Mondale figure, a pragmatic, no-nonsense executive. But in the end, he was "outed" as a liberal, a product of
the "Harvard boutique." Dukakis never seemed to understand what was wrong with him in the minds of Heartlanders, and his clueless candidacy deflated into landslide defeat. By contrast, Kerry -- a decorated war veteran, warts and all -- has been in the public eye since 1971. And while he has an undeniably liberal record, he has benefited from long experience; he has seen enough Democratic defeats to know what works and doesn't work on the national proscenium.

Kerry was no enemy of Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" shift toward the middle in 1992, including Clinton's tough-minded post-Dukakis approach to crime. Kerry voted for Bush's Patriot Act in 2001 and for the Iraq war in 2002. And in his campaign, he has been at pains to highlight his hawkish credentials; he is happy to be seen gun-toting, hunting and generally hawk-talking. Yet at the same time, he has expressed strong feelings about his opposition; on March 10, he described the Republicans as "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen." Kerry's campaign reflects that combative spirit. His rapid-responders, for example, never make the Dukakis mistake of letting attacks go uncountered.

Third, this is a more Republican country today than it was then. Republicans were the minority in Congress in 1988; now they control both chambers. And the shift to the Sunbelt continues to help the GOP, as Democratic states in the Snowbelt continue to shrink. The elder Bush beat Dukakis in the Electoral College 426 to 112; if that election were held today, the vote would be 434 to 104. Indeed, if the 2000 election were rerun now, Bush's Sunbelt-heavy electoral-vote total would rise from 271 to 278.

The fourth difference is a big one: the difference between war and peace. In 1988, foreign policy wasn't much of an issue; no Americans were dying in hot wars, and the Cold War was fading and the USSR waning. That's hardly the case in 2004. Moreover, whereas the elder Bush prided himself on his mastery of foreign affairs, the younger Bush -- although he prides himself, too, on his mastery, or at least his clarity -- is having difficulty with his preemption doctrine. Even the neoconservatives are noticing; these days, they are less calling him Churchill and more being critical. "All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters," wrote Robert Kagan in the Washington Post earlier this month, "can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do about Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now." And of course, the Abu Ghraib revelations, not to mention the continuing casualties, are not helping.

On the other hand, the fortunes of war being what they are -- good news is good for the incumbent, and bad news can rally voters 'round the flag -- the commander in chief nevertheless has a huge edge. For Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and FDR in 1944, the don't-change-horses-in-the-middle-of-the-stream argument proved decisive in favor of the president seeking reelection.

The fifth difference -- and the biggest difference of all -- is Ralph Nader. Yes, the man who scourged corporate America for three decades now seems eager to end his public life by scourging the Democrats. His vote-siphoning arguably cost the Democrats the White House in 2000, and he seems eager to do it again in 2004. Every time Kerry tracks toward the center, Nader finds another reason to attack him. More to the point, Nader's numbers have been rising in the polls, from the twos and threes to the fives and sixes. After just four years out of power, the Left still doesn't seem hungry enough to swallow its doctrinal differences and pull in the same anti-Republican harness. And yet in a close election, Nader's few percentage points could swing this election, too.

To be sure, most of Nader's votes won't hurt Kerry. In a state such as California, where Al Gore won by almost 1.3 million votes in 2000, it didn't matter much that Nader grabbed more than 400,000 ballots, almost all from Gore's total. But Florida, of course, was a different story: Bush won the Sunshine State by 537 votes, while Nader took 97,419 votes -- almost all of them away from Gore.

And he's making ever more moves to do it again. Last week, Nader, who ran on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000, snagged the Reform Party's endorsement. The Reform Party, of course, was founded by Ross Perot and, most recently, in 2000, nominated Pat Buchanan for president. But while it may seem odd for a left-winger like Nader to sign on with such a party, some on the left and some on the right find common ground on issues such as isolationism and protectionism. So Nader is now guaranteed prime ballot placement in at least seven states, including such biggies as Florida and Michigan, and his donning of the Reform Party mantle might gain him some votes among populist Perotistas as well as the usual-suspect lefties.

Moreover, he likes to say that he gets votes from Republicans, too; although in my quarter-century in and around Republican politics, I have never met a Republican who planned to vote for Nader, I have lately met a number who say they have given him money, or plan to do so, as a way of helping re-elect Bush. And now, in the wake of a recent Federal Election Commission ruling that essentially takes hands off the secretive "527" independent-expenditure committees set up by the likes of George Soros, it's possible that we could find out after the November election that millions of dollars were spent in strange-bedfellow ways to help Nader. Or maybe we might never find out.

Indeed, it's possible that the Bush and Nader forces could combine -- overtly or covertly -- in such a manner that helps Nader chisel away enough votes from Kerry in selected swing states. And so the '04 election could be a repeat of the '00 election, in which the Democrat's national vote total, ballooned in states such as California -- where Bush will barely campaign -- could fail to translate into an electoral-college majority. That is, the Rove-Bush forces could concentrate on swing states, such as Missouri or Wisconsin, knowing that winning a state by a single popular vote means winning all the state's electoral votes.

Could that mean a second consecutive victory by a presidential candidate who wins a minority of the popular vote? Such an outcome would be unprecedented in American history -- and yes, it would probably throw the presidential system into crisis. In a world of precise political targeting and electoral-vote cherry-picking, it's a distinct possibility.

To sum up, all the historical parallels and iron laws that one can use to help call the 2004 election might yet be knock-a-blocked by Nader and his quixotic quest. Grand forces and deep trends are worthy of contemplation, but as 19th century British writer Thomas Carlyle declared, it's the Great Man -- or maybe, this time, the Angry Spoiler -- who is decisive in human events.


TCS Daily Archives