The Dukakis Lesson: Never Ignore an Attack

tags: Dukakis

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief.

Listen, youngsters, there was once a time in American politics when a politician with a good shot of becoming president threw away his big chance because he believed he should—and could—remain above the fray. Yes, he really thought that. His name was Michael Dukakis. And today he is mostly known as a political loser.

Yet in his day, Dukakis was the popular and successful governor of Massachusetts, who, as the son of Greek immigrants, was widely seen as the personification of the American Dream. After winning the Democratic presidential primary of 1988—vanquishing such political warriors as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, and Paul Simon (the senator, not the singer)—Dukakis was for a time the front-runner in the race against a sitting vice president named George Herbert Walker Bush. In May of that year, Dukakis led the dynastic prince by 16 points in one poll. In August, he had a 17-point advantage. And the veep branded himself the "underdog" of the race.

But Dukakis made a big error. When the mud started flying, he acted as if he were at afternoon tea.

In a new NBC Learn documentary, aptly titled Above the Fray: The Lessons of Dukakis '88, Will Rabbe, a producer for MSNBC's Hardball, chronicles this supersized miscalculation. (Connection declared: I'm a regular guest on Hardball.) For many who lived through the excruciating final months of the campaign, as the Bush machine (operated by Lee Atwater, a consultant known for his down-and-dirty, street-brawling style of politics) pummeled Dukakis and he blandly responded with policy pronouncements, this film will bring back cringe-inducing bad memories.

At the start of the documentary, Dukakis, who has always come across as a thoughtful, intelligent, and decent fellow, says, "In retrospect, I'm not sure we had the kind of strategy we should have. But it was certainly an eminently winnable campaign at the time." A viewer already familiar with this sad tale can't help but mutter, "No shit." ...

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