In presidential politics, this nuisance thing called ‘history’ often has a way of rearing its sometimes ugly head. Political operatives often deny it, try to deflect its impact or completely ignore how history bears upon the politics of the moment. This year the lessons of presidential elections of the past are looming large despite proclamations that this election unlike any other is ‘critical’ or unique in its tensions and combativeness between candidates and voters.
For the Democratic Party, there are some real lessons to be learned from previous presidential elections when the party foreclosed internal debate and lunged toward the ‘sure thing,’ the candidate with the establishment credentials and media sheen. Coming out of Atlanta after the party’s convention in 1988 Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis held a near 17-point lead over his Republican opponent, Vice President George H. Bush.
In Atlanta the party was confronted by the heroic campaign of Rev. Jesse Jackson over internal Democratic National Committee rules, including super delegates, and the diversity of the party’s management hierarchy. The end result was Jackson’s convention manager, Ron Brown, being named party chairman and several Jackson surrogates gaining seats on the party’s executive committee. How the party’s nominee in 1988 negotiated with his convention opponent should be a lesson for the Clinton camp but the DNC leadership seems intent to move forward to Philadelphia dismissive of the Sanders campaign.
What is often forgotten about the Atlanta convention is that a little known southern governor gave one of the worst candidate endorsement speeches in convention history, so long that many on the convention floor (myself included) booed the speaker to get him off the platform. Few would have thought Bill Clinton would come back four years later as the party’s nominee after that debacle.
And that’s my point. Mike Dukakis was the wunderkind of the moment, the policy wonk who shepherded the “Massachusetts Miracle” and was seen as the most competent politician and bureaucrat to carry the party to victory. He was the establishment guy, the can’t miss candidate who would return the White House to Democratic control. Instead, Dukakis was a disaster of a candidate; easily dismantled by the machinery of the Bush campaign and the afterglow of the Reagan revolution. Rather than the public seeing George H. Bush as the ultimate insider, which he was, Dukakis was seen as the out-of-touch policy geek; an establishment type who was incapable of presidential leadership.
That’s the problem with status quo candidates. Even when the status quo is relatively good for many, it is always relatively bad for more. Just look at what happened to the elder Bush in 1992. Though Bill Clinton had been right-sizing his party through the Democratic Leadership Council, he was a relative unknown to the voting public, save his 1988 convention speech. He came across as the anti-establishment candidate, the perfect antidote to end Republican rule in the White House. President Bush was coming off favorable public opinion for his handling of the Gulf War but Clinton seized on the public’s unease over the economy and delivered a populist message.
Democrats have had a lot of history with establishment failures. Those losses often come against Republican candidates with equal establishment baggage but it is packaged in a way that connects with the public. And yes, some of the Republican messaging is racially coded but often it is the Democratic candidate that fails to define the value proposition of their candidacy. Recent political history is littered with Democratic candidates that were deemed ‘safe bets’ and had all of the establishment credentials that made their election seemingly inevitable.
Going back to 1988 and Dukakis, followed by Al Gore, despite his obvious popular vote victory, and then John Kerry, when the Democratic Party has played it safe, it has paid the price at the polls. Jimmy Carter wasn’t a safe bet in 1976 and neither was Bill Clinton in 1992 and certainly not Barack Obama in 2008. While each man had some vestiges of establishment politics and policy wonkishness, they each conveyed a sense of freshness and being outside the Beltway that they were able to build widespread enthusiasm for their candidacies.
We are in an anti-establishment moment with two establishment candidates in the lead for their respective parties but one, the Democrat, who comes across more Dukakis than Bubba, and whose inside the Beltway aura is contradictory to the mood of the electorate. The Democratic Party, rather than learning from the mistakes of its past, are relying upon the misogynistic and borderline racist rantings of the Republican opponent to maintain control of the Oval Office.
That strategy might work but there is a very good chance that it will not. This is a different electorate; a public that is jaded and frustrated, and a growing force of young voters unimpressed with insider politics and angry over the prospects for their futures. Much like 2004, the Democrat with the long and impressive record may end up on the short end of the stick.