The Magazine

Duking It Out

The Dukakis administration that never was.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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As Barack Obama sees his ratings descend toward the high 30s, he is increasingly described as the second coming of James Earl Carter Jr., whose presidency, gone but hardly forgotten, lives on in masochists’ minds. The comparison is unkind and not quite on target: This is less Carter II than the lost presidency of Michael Dukakis, which seemed a sure thing at this date 22 years ago, and from which we were saved by the elder George Bush.

Duking It Out

Photo Credit: AP

Of course, no one thought Dukakis could be the messiah, but in other ways the connections are strong: both creatures of the liberal Northeast and of Harvard, with no sense at all of most of the rest of the country; both rationalists who impose legalistic criteria on emotion-rich subjects; both with fixed ideas of who society’s victims are, which do not accord with the views of the public; and both with a tin ear for the culture and a genius for creating wedge issues that split their own party. Obama has the Carter naïveté in foreign affairs—treating allies like foes, and vice versa—but it is the Dukakis campaign that provides the better parallel.

Obama’s culture war began in spring 2008, when he talked at a fundraiser about people who “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion.” It jumped up a notch the next summer when he volunteered that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in the arrest of his friend Skip Gates, and erupted exponentially when he expressed support for a mosque to be built within blocks of Ground Zero, against the wishes of the survivors of the people who died there, two-thirds of New Yorkers, and everyone else not a liberal blogger or columnist. 

The culture war of Michael Dukakis began with a 1972 prison reform law (signed by the governor before him) that gave unsupervised furloughs to prisoners serving life without parole; it grew worse when his state legislature passed a bill requiring teachers to lead their students each day in the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis consulted his state supreme court, which told him the bill would be unconstitutional, based on a 1943 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that “requiring a student to recite the pledge under threat of expulsion violated .  .  . freedom of speech.” There was no threat of expulsion or anything else, but Dukakis vetoed it anyway. In 1976 (during his first stint as governor), he also vetoed a bill to amend the prison reform bill to excise the furlough provision, two years after Willie Horton, who had stabbed a 17-year-old boy so badly that he died with one pint of blood left in his body, had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life. 

In 1986, while on furlough, Horton escaped and was caught more than ninth months later in Maryland, after a crime spree in which he stole a car and terrorized a young couple, stabbing the man repeatedly and raping his fiancée. In 1987, when Dukakis was in the early stages of his campaign for president, the Massachusetts legislature again passed a bill rescinding the furloughs, this time by veto-proof numbers. Dukakis signed the bill under protest, making it clear that he still backed the program.

Al Gore raised the issue in the Democratic primaries, but Dukakis sloughed it off with one sentence, and the issue was dropped. The Bush campaign did not make this mistake. They forged Dukakis’s two vetoes on the pledge/furlough issues into an assault on Dukakis’s discretion and judgment that turned a 17-point lead in mid-summer into a 8-point loss to Bush in the fall.

Liberals never understood what occurred. They never figured out that the furlough was a stand-in for the “use of force,” for the ability to recognize evil and use force to contain it as Bush did when Iraq invaded Kuwait. “He didn’t realize that these issues could really put him outside the mainstream,” a Bush aide told Paul Taylor, the Washington Post reporter who wrote a book about the campaign.

He comes from a certain parochial culture—Massachusetts, Harvard, liberal—where asking someone to salute the flag raises the case law on loyalty oaths. For most people, the Pledge issue went to the symbol of the nation: It essentially raised the question of whether we were a special nation, with a special role and special responsibilities in the world.

Dukakis, who took a dim view of American power, would have likely said “no” to that question, as Obama explicitly did with his lawyerly reply to a British reporter: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

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