By Dave Kopel
Colorado Statesman, Jan 27, 1989
In contrast to 1984, the Democratic party is not undergoing a "soul-searching" reappraisal about its usual landslide Presidential election defeat. A consensus seems to blame the loss on Dukakis' poor campaign, and the Willie Horton ad. Some people optimistically note that we came closer than usual, both in Colorado and nationally.
But the relatively smaller size of the loss is no cause for cheer. We had the most united party since 1964, and the weakest Republican ticket since that date. We weren't running against Ronald Reagan, just George Bush and Dan Quayle. Yet the Republicans won over 400 electoral votes.
Democrats ought to be a little less disgusted with Dukakis' "incompetent" August-September campaign. The traits that he displayed in that period were precisely the traits that had won him the nomination.
When the Willie Horton ads began running in the fall, Dukakis ignored them. He had succeeded with that strategy in the primaries, when Al Gore had raised the parole issue.
Like Bush, Gore had also attacked Dukakis as a far-out Massachusetts liberal, although Gore did so in the context of warning about Dukakis' electability, rather than assaulting the Duke's liberalism head-on. Gore, however, didn't start articulating these issues until the big-state primaries of Illinois, Michigan, and New York. By then, even cultural conservatives who agreed with Gore voted for Dukakis anyway, for fear that a vote for Gore would be a vote for Jackson. After New York, Gore and parole issue disappeared.
Thus, when Bush raised the parole issue again, Dukakis again ignored it. Not until too late did Dukakis realize that Bush's attacks were far more effective -- because Bush put the parole question in the context of other cultural issues that Gore wouldn't raise, such as the death penalty and gun control.
Conventional wisdom advises against being drawn into a dialogue over your opponent's negative attacks. When Republicans branded Roy Romer a crypto-Communist and Pat Schroeder a baby-killer, staying above the attack proved a successful strategy. Likewise, Dukakis had defused the parole and culture issues in the primaries by ignoring them. From the perspective of August -- when Dukakis was trying to portray himself as a high-minded manager who wouldn't get down into the gutter with Bush -- the non-confrontational strategy was reasonable. As it turned out, Dukakis made a mistake, but the 20-20 hindsight of his critics is a little arrogant.
It is true that Dukakis ran a themeless, vague campaign, and consequently ended up letting George Bush define the issues. But again, that very strategy had won Dukakis the nomination.
Instead of choosing candidates who offered a bold set of policies (such as Hart, Babbitt, Jackson, or Gephardt), the Democrats chose the candidate who was inoffensive to all factions, who had no gossip-column flaws, and who posed no troubling challenges to the voters. Both Democratic primary voters and Democratic officials seemed to like Dukakis' quiet competence. They and Dukakis remembered the debacle of 1984, when Walter Mondale actually said all the liberal things that he thought, and won 13 electoral votes.
Dukakis won the nomination with fuzzy nothings like "Good jobs at good wages," and "Just say no to Noriega." No wonder the Governor concluded that all he had to do was not say anything stupid, and victory would fall into his hands. If the Democrats didn't want a mushy candidate, they could have nominated someone else. It is unfair to condemn Dukakis in December for faults that last May were hailed as virtues.
Moreover, complaining about the nuts and bolts of the fall campaign distracts Democrats from the unpleasant truth: The reason Dukakis lost was not competence; it was ideology.
On the night of Super Tuesday, Al Gore had predicted that Dukakis could not win, because he was so far outside the American mainstream on a host of key concerns. Gore was right. According to a Los Angeles Timespoll, 23% of voters considered defense one the most important issues. Bush won those voters by an astonishing 84% - 15% margin. If Dukakis had managed to capture half those voters, the election would have been a dead heat. But Dukakis never stood a chance.
Back in the days of the Iowa caucus, Dukakis had earned rave reviews from Iowa's Star-PAC (a group that approves of no American nuclear defense system, and considers Pat Schroeder too hawkish).
Governor Dukakis was the only Governor to bar his state from participating in the GWEN (Ground Wave Emergency Network) communications system. This system strengthens strategic U.S. communication, so that in the event of nuclear or other war U.S. forces could stay in touch, and continue to receive direction from the President. (Much better than leaving every pilot or sub commander with no idea whether to attack, hide, or stay put.)
Further, Dukakis dismissed the idea of even testing SDI as "a fantasy." While scientists disagree about Star Wars, the Soviets don't seem to think it a fantasy. They take it seriously enough to offer significant arms cuts in exchange for SDI limits. (Perhaps they just want to make the U.S. doesn't waste money on weapons that won't work.) Yet Dukakis would have thrown SDI away without even bothering to get something substantial in return.
When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he called for a vigorous build-up of nuclear forces. Later in his term, he negotiated an important arms control treaty. Nixon and Reagan followed Kennedy's strategy, and got treaties too.
Who would most voters want to negotiate with Gorbachev? Someone who says "build and negotiate" or someone who says "slash SDI now, and then negotiate."
As the election progressed, Dukakis began to realize that the general electorate was not as credulous about Soviet intentions as were the caucus attendees in Iowa. So Dukakis invented a "Conventional Defense Initiative," to beef up our regular army, and reduce reliance on nuclear forces.
Attempting to call attention to his policy, Dukakis took a ride in a tank. But as Gary Hart had pointed out last March, Dukakis knew almost nothing about genuine military reform.
A realconventional defense build-up would cost much more money than we spend now on defense. (That's why pro-nuclear Eisenhower had a lower defense budget that conventional army Truman. "More bang for the buck," was the phrase.) Who really expected President Dukakis to fund even his minimal proposed conventional forces increase?
Dukakis also repeated John F. Kennedy's vow "to pay any price, bear any burden," to defend freedom around the world.
Yet this rhetoric sounded highly insincere, coming from a man who opposed the liberation of Grenada and the raid on Libya. Both measures cost little, and produced concrete gains. Most voters approved these measures, but Dukakis didn't. Indeed, Dukakis had opposed virtually every American use of force since the Korean War.
The Democrats didn't have to lose this election; they have a host of excellent pro-defense thinkers. Gary Hart and Sam Nunn created the idea of military reform. Other party leaders, such as Les Aspin or Bill Bradley have critiqued Reagan-Bush Pentagon waste without acceding to every demand for every weapon system.
Unfortunately, our nomination process is skewed, so that pacifist PACs hand the Democratic nomination to candidates so soft on defense they can't win a general election -- even against George Bush.
Someday, the Democrats will nominate candidates for whom "peace through strength" is a genuine philosophy, and not a response to September tracking polls. When that day comes, Americans will once more trust a Democratic President with their security. Until then, all the advertising strategy in the world will not save us.