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.
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.”
Obama comes from the same cultural niche as Dukakis and operates from the same point of view: that the death penalty is wrong and the benefit of the doubt goes to the accused in most situations; that in a confrontation with a black man, a white cop will act “stupidly”; that patriotic displays are déclassé; that Muslims are an imperiled minority and must be indulged at all costs. To the Bush campaign in 1988, the furlough was about terrible crimes, and Dukakis’s judgment about a convicted murderer serving a life term who was let out on unsupervised furloughs. To liberals, of course, it was about race, as Horton was black and his victims white. Taylor wrote that the Bush campaign came “out of George Wallace’s and Richard Nixon’s playbooks. . . . They ‘waved the bloody shirt’ just as nineteenth-century politicians had waved it for a generation after the Civil War.”
Hendrik Hertzberg (who promoted the mosque in 2010 in the New Yorker) wrote in 1988 in the New Republic that
Bush ran the most vicious campaign of the second half of the 20th century. It was a campaign that quite openly exploited primitive racial-sexual fears. More subtly . . . the Bush campaign exploited nativist prejudice. . . . Dukakis is not an American, Dukakis is different, this was the unwholesome subtheme that tied together the pledgehammer assault. . . . It is hard to resist the supposition that some among the Bush people calculated that these particular attacks would be particularly effective against a big-nosed beetle-browed Mediterranean type with a Jewish wife.
It’s hard to resist only if you think Dukakis’s judgment was flawless, and that sympathy for the feelings of survivors of those killed on September 11 is in reality nothing but hate. The GOP is “seething with hatred toward vulnerable religious and ethnic groups,” says Peter Beinart, though the party is running a large number of Hispanics, blacks, and children of Indian immigrants for high state and federal office. To Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic, Obama’s coalition of “young Americans, modernists, seculars, [and] suburban couples who believe in the virtues of tolerance” is battling “a resurgence of anti-cosmopolitanism [and] the constructed identity of America as a collection of white ethnic immigrants”—on the part of 68 percent of the American people, 54 percent of all Democrats, and such notable racists as Harry Reid, majority leader of the United States Senate, and ex-Democratic party chair Howard Dean.
Like the furlough, the mosque issue is a bad one for Democrats, and one their defenders get wrong. “The first America tends to make the finer sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes,” says the New York Times’s Ross Douthat. This is a nice point, and leads one to further comparisons: The first America is full of itself and the second one isn’t; the first America is filled with Ambinder’s “modernists, seculars, [and] suburban couples who believe in the virtues of tolerance,” while the second is filled with “f—ing NASCAR retards” (as Eric Alterman of the Nation puts it). The first thinks Newsweek helps keep the culture from darkness and the second knows why it had to be sold for one dollar; the first thinks imams need their sensibilities coddled and those of Catholics, Jews, veterans, and evangelicals can be trashed with impunity; while the second believes this is mad. The second America thinks assault, rape, and murder are serious crimes that merit harsh punishment; the first America thinks these things disturb white Americans only if and when the assailants in question are black. The second America was ready in the summer of 1988 to elect Michael Dukakis (Greek name, Jewish wife, and the rest of it), and backed off when it came to know more about him. It did, however, elect Barack Obama (middle name of “Hussein” and the rest of it), and is right now repenting as it wakes up to reality: He is not FDR, JFK, or the liberal Reagan, but Michael Dukakis. Which is not what was wanted at all.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.