This is the second installment of a series on losing presidential candidates of the last 50 years. As always, I will try to indicate  when I start making shit up. But I promise nothing.
Michael Dukakis was the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when, in 1988, he won the Democratic nomination for president. He outlasted such political luminaries as Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Al Gore (who will have his own story in these pages despite actually winning the 2000 election) and faced then Vice-President George Herbert Walker Bush in a battle for the White House.
Dukakis was the first major party nominee from Massachusetts since John F. Kennedy in 1960; like Kennedy, Dukakis chose a senator from Texas, in this case the estimable Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate.
Thanks to some minor mistakes by Bush (such as incorrectly remembering the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor and choosing the fundamentally dim Dan Quayle as his running mate, not to mention the embarassment of having been Vice President), Dukakis began the general election campaign as a solid favorite to win the White House.
What Went So Horribly, Horribly Wrong
Delayed Campaign. After exiting the 1988 Democratic Convention with a 17-point lead in the polls, Dukakis saw his lead begin to slip almost immediately. How did this happen? What horrible gaffe did the candidate commit?
In short: he did his job. In the first few weeks after the convention, Dukakis put the campaign on hold while he dealt with the business of governing the state of Massachusetts. This caused a failure to capitalize on the “bump” he had received in the polls during the convention.
But let’s remember one thing: presidential candidates who already hold another office do not relinquish that office (or send back their paychecks) while they seek the Presidency. Dukakis, having at least a few shreds of integrity, decided to show up for work for a few weeks and take care of some shit before becoming mostly unavailable for a few months. This is what you would do, isn’t it? Could you get away with such an absence from the workplace?
“Is it OK if I take a few months off to look for a better job? I’ll give you an address where you can send my paychecks while I’m gone.”
Willie Horton. Like many liberal democrats, Dukakis’ view on the “war on crime” was compassionate, reasoned, and forgiving. The led him not only to commute the sentences of convicted first-degree murderers, but also to let some murderers freely roam the countryside on temporary furloughs. Although the program was not unique, as similar furloughs were granted in other states as well as at the federal level, Bush’s advisors knew a weakness when they saw one. All they needed was a face to put to the issue, and they found one in convict Willie Horton.
Who just happened to be black, which I’m sure the Republicans hadn’t noticed.
Horton, a convicted murderer, had been out on a furlough when he chose to do his bit for democracy by raping a woman and beating up her husband. As governor, Dukakis was obviously responsible for this, despite the fact that the program had been begun in 1972 under a Republican governor, and that it was the Supreme Court of Massachusetts that extended the furlough privilege to first-degree murderers. The only way Dukakis could have prevented the tragedy would have been by tackling Horton outside the prison gates and injecting him with a strong sedative in the back of the head. Failure to do this was to have serious repercussions.
Boston Harbor. One of the more effective commercials run by the Bush campaign was one that called into question the environmental record of Governor Dukakis. It pictured a stinking, fetid body of water, with garbage afloat on the surface, along with a voice-over declaring that under the governor, Boston Harbor had been allowed to deteriorate to an alarming state of filthiness. This would have perhaps been a valid criticism if the images on the screen had actually been scenes of Boston Harbor. But evidently Boston Harbor was not quite filthy enough to score the necessary political points; the republican campaign used some other body of water that they sort of neglected to name.
“Boston Harbor has become polluted beyond belief. Oh, that? Er, well, that’s a sewer. But see, that’s just the point.”
Rape and Murder. Dukakis had repeatedly stated his opposition to the death penalty for many years. Not an unusual stand for a liberal politician, this still left him open for criticism of a particularly low and sensationalist variety (see Willie Horton, above). It was during his second debate with Bush that Dukakis, however passionately he may have held his belief, failed to respond to a question from Bernard Shaw with the proper emotion the voting public felt he should have shown.
The question: If your wife Kitty was raped and murdered, would you still oppose the death penalty?
Dukakis reiterated his stand against capital punishment, but it seemed like the life drained out of him at that moment. What the viewers saw was a man with no soul; a cold, uncaring technocrat without feelings.
It was so devastating, and so pivotal to the election (Dukakis dropped in the polls from 49% to 42% that very night) that the question became a standard one for future presidential debates.
“If Kitty Dukakis was raped and murdered, would you favor the death penalty?”
The Pledge of Allegiance. Another issue that the Bush campaign forced Dukakis to defend himself on repeatedly was the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis had vetoed a bill while governor that would have required recitation of the pledge in Massachusetts classrooms. Bush accused Dukakis of lacking in patriotism for this action; obviously, if you don’t force children to salute flags and parrot pledges, it can only mean one thing: you hate America, Mom, and everything that is good in this world.
Your goddamn pie makes me throw up in my nose.
Dukakis, of course, was making the one big mistake that liberals often commit: putting the U.S. Constitution, the basis of all laws in America, ahead of a piece of fabric with pretty colored stripes and stuff. Dukakis’ opposition to requiring the pledge was based on his belief that requiring recitation was unconstitutional.
“Fuck the law. We got us a flag.”
The democratic nominee, in fact, had a Supreme Court decision on his side (West Virginia v. Barnette, 1943) but hey, why would that matter? We’re talking patriotism. Yay, America!
Bobblehead Tank. As a liberal democrat, Dukakis was subject to the usual attacks by the Republicans for being “soft on defense.” This has been going on since roughly 1952 and has resulted in such Democrat-led travesties as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam war. To counter this, Dukakis’ campaign strategists cooked up a wonderful photo opportunity for the candidate; stick him in a badass M-1 tank for a short spin.
Of course human memory is not DVR; details get lost and sometimes images get substituted in the recalling. What you remember is probably more like this:
Somehow, the “soft on defense” issue was not defused by this image.
In the end, it was the third consecutive drubbing suffered by the Democrats, and the fifth time in six presidential elections they had been handed a defeat. Although he made some inroads in certain areas of the country compared to prior democratic losers, he was able to win a mere ten states, the District of Columbia, and 111 votes in the Electoral College compared to Bush’s 40 states and 426 electoral votes.
Somewhat bitter over what he perceived as improper campaign conduct by his opponents, unfair scrutiny in the media and the rape and murder of his wife , he left politics in 1990 when his term as governor ran out.
“It’s the eyebrows, isn’t it? What, I should look like Gerald Ford?”