1988 and 2004: Same Tune, Same Ending?

Posted September 10, 2004 at 4:27pm

Increasingly, I have the strange feeling that I’ve seen this presidential race before. So I went back to one of my favorite old political resources, the Almanac of 1988 Presidential Politics, published by the Hotline and the LTV Corp. (You probably could have made a lot of money betting that 15 years later LTV would be out of business and the Hotline would be prospering.)

[IMGCAP(1)]The booklet contains a wonderful chronology of the 1988 race, starting (unbelievably) on Dec. 16, 1984, and continuing through Election Day, Nov. 8, 1988.

I promised myself that I would go back to the Almanac shortly after watching the Democrats spend four days in Boston celebrating their party for having “values” and their presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), for his military experience and proven leadership.

The Democratic National Convention was a paean to moderation, with most of the prominent speakers emphasizing Kerry’s character and calling for unity and optimism. Issues and ideology were noticeably absent.

Kerry never uttered the words made famous by 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis — “This election is not about ideology; it’s about competence” — but in emphasizing his personal qualities, particularly his leadership and heroism, the Massachusetts Senator came very close to echoing the Massachusetts governor’s message.

The similarities between the 1988 race and the 2004 contest (so far) are many. It’s not just that the anti-Kerry “Swift Boat” ads are reminiscent of that other famous independently produced commercial, the so-called Willie Horton ad.

In mid-July 1988, Massachusetts Democrat Dukakis named a Southern Senator, Texan Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate. A little more than a month later, the Massachusetts governor says, “The ‘L’ word in this campaign is leadership.”

We hear a lot about the 2004 presidential race as being nasty and negative, and it has been. But the 1988 race was no tea party.

At that Democratic convention, Texas Democrat Ann Richards made fun of George H.W. Bush for being born with a “silver foot in his mouth,” and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy repeated mockingly, “Where Was George?” to the delight of attendees.

In late July, rumors swirled that Dukakis had undergone psychiatric care for depression, causing the governor to respond, “There’s an old Greek saying, you know, ‘A fish rots from the head first.’ It starts at the top.” As far as I know, neither Kerry nor his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), has yet to compare this President Bush to a rotting fish.

Ultimately, Dukakis called Bush a liar, and then-House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), when asked about Bush’s campaign team, responded, “Hitler would love these people.” Are you still certain this year’s campaign is nastier?

When Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle (R) was tapped as Bush’s running mate in mid-August, it generated a fury of media attention on the potential vice president, with many in the media calling the choice a mistake and characterizing him as a liability. Heard anything about a Bush No. 2 being a lightning rod this cycle?

On Aug. 25, then-VP Bush said, “My opponent seems to oppose the development of every new weapons system since the slingshot.” OK, slingshots aren’t spitballs, but they’re pretty close.

On Sept. 2, Dukakis re-hired former campaign manager John Sasso (whom he fired over Sasso’s role in forcing Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination) as campaign vice chairman. Sixteen years later, again in early September, Kerry turned to Sasso to try to salvage a flailing campaign.

One week later, Dukakis responded to Bush’s attack on the Democrat for vetoing a bill in Massachusetts that would have required teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in class. Dukakis, who had previously charged that then-Vice President Bush was “not fit to hold” the presidency, accused Bush of “attacking my patriotism.” “I don’t question Mr. Bush’s patriotism, but I do question his judgment,” the governor said, in language that isn’t very different from that used this year.

The week of Sept. 10, Hurricane Gilbert “dominates the news,” according to Hotline/LTV. Hmm. The coincidences are starting to get a little weird aren’t they?

On Oct. 19, “Rumors of a personal story harmful to Bush” circulate, and the next day a top Dukakis aide, Donna Brazile (now a Roll Call contributing writer), called Bush a racist and demanded that he respond to the rumors. Today, the buzz is about President Bush’s national guard service and the charges in Kitty Kelley’s book.

On Oct. 30, a week before the election, Dukakis said, “Yes, I am a liberal,” in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The next day, Vice President Bush jokes, “We ought to debate Dukakis against Dukakis.” Where have I heard that recently?

All campaigns have things in common, but the 1988 and 2004 contests, each pitting a Bush against a Massachusetts Democrat, are eerily similar, at least so far: A Bush trailed before the conventions but led after the GOP convention. Don’t be surprised if this year’s race continues to follow the ’88 script in more ways than you might expect.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report .