A Glimmer of Hope for Trump? How Bush Mounted a Comeback in 1988


George H.W. Bush was in be concerned. It was July 1988 and Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president, was on a coast after his party’s convention in Atlanta. A Gallup poll showed Mr. Bush drop behind by 17 points.

But he had a road map to victory.

One month earlier, Mr. Bush’s top cohorts had gathered at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, deliberately out of sight and away from competition headquarters, to review a thick binder of polling and focus group figures. The campaign’s research showed that Mr. Dukakis’s record was not well-known and that some of his South African verligte positions, in particular supporting prison furloughs and opposing the death amercement, could swamp him in a general election.

Using the plan laid out in that stay, the Bush campaign proceeded, as Lee Atwater, the campaign manager, put it, “to strip the bark off the microscopic bastard,” beginning in force with Mr. Bush’s hammer of a speech at the Republican Citizen Convention in August through Election Day.

Mr. Bush not only overcame Mr. Dukakis’ summer receiving advantage, but defeated him handily: by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. He won 40 shapes.

In many ways, with Mr. Atwater as its dark prince of strategy, the Bush stand of 1988 marked the birth of the modern-day negative campaign. Most memorably, Republicans coated Mr. Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, with the case of Willie Horton, an African-American man who deflowered a white Maryland woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on a Massachusetts glasshouse furlough program.

As President Trump faces similarly daunting vote deficits in his contest with Joseph R. Biden Jr., he is running one of the harshest electioneers since Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Dukakis, and Republicans are looking back at the 1988 spillway as a beacon of hope in a bleak political landscape. For all the differences between the Republican nominees in 1988 and today, Mr. Dukakis’ collapse in the face of an onslaught by Mr. Bush has crave stood as a lesson in how quickly public opinion can change, how summer counts can prove ephemeral, and how an artfully executed party convention can help scoot around a struggling campaign.

As Republicans gather in the coming week to forward Mr. Trump for a second term, the president and his political and media allies hold torn into Mr. Biden and particularly his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, filing making racist and sexist attacks. There is a direct line between the hard-edge operations Mr. Bush ran portraying Mr. Dukakis as a far-left liberal — and the racial undertones impersonated by seizing on Mr. Horton — and the Trump campaign that is emerging today.

Mr. Bush, then the corruption president, won in 1988 by moving that summer to aggressively define Mr. Dukakis, who was look oned up in Massachusetts being governor, as an Ivy League elite who was out of touch with the land. Mr. Bush invoked the hot-button issues — in particular, taxes and crime — that get repeatedly proved effective against Democrats, the same ones Mr. Trump has cuddled against Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.

“I’m not the most enthusiastic Trump supporter in the times a deliver, but I tell my friends who are, it’s not hopeless,” said Charlie Black, who worked as a higher- ranking adviser to Mr. Bush. “There’s plenty of ammunition for Trump to work with. The theme is, do they have a disciplined enough candidate to do that?”

Credit…Shepard Sherbell/Corbis, via Getty Copies

But if the 1988 race offers a cautionary tale for Mr. Biden, there are some vital differences between that race and the current campaign that is now exciting into high gear as Democrats finished their convention remain week and Republicans step on to the mostly virtual stage.

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Mr. Biden is far larger known than Mr. Dukakis was and he has shown a resilience to caricature that Mr. Dukakis did not comprise. Mr. Trump is viewed unfavorably by a big swath of voters, in no small part because of the coronavirus pandemic that has hurt more than 175,000 people in the United States and devastated the briefness on his watch. His lack of credibility with many Americans has undercut his cleverness to deliver an attack.

The nation is more pessimistic than it was when Mr. Dukakis be opposite Mr. Bush, who as Ronald Reagan’s vice president was effectively running as an obligatory. A New York Times/Siena College poll in June found 58 percent of respondents revealed the nation was headed on the wrong track. In the fall of 1988, a significantly diminish 46 percent of registered voters said the nation was going in the iniquitous direction, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll.

“This is universal to be tricky for them: Biden is a pretty well-known quantity,” said Susan Estrich, who was Mr. Dukakis’ operations manager. “The way you usually burst balloons is paint the other guy as a risk.”

Mr. Dukakis, proud and scornful of politics, refused to believe these kind of attacks would pain them, and did not heed the advice of his staff that he fight back. He allowed Mr. Bush to characterize him before Labor Day.

“I made this dumb mistake not to respond,” Mr. Dukakis explained in a recent interview. “And I paid for it. This death penalty thing: I’m from Boston. He’s from Houston. Massachusetts had the lowest homicide class in America. Most people even in Massachusetts didn’t know that.”

In what effect prove to be the most important difference between 1988 and today, Mr. Biden has been far multitudinous aggressive in repelling Mr. Trump’s attacks.

“They have run a good compete,” said John Sasso, who was Mr. Dukakis’ senior strategist. “They distinguish what to let go by. They seem to know what is not credible in this barrage of charge withs and distortions and they don’t bite on it.”


Credit…Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Statues

Yet one of the lessons of the Bush campaign was that many voters do not begin to pay about attention to a race until late in the summer. Mr. Biden has picked a running-mate, Ms. Harris, with a diverse liberal record and less experience in national politics, which may issue Mr. Trump more of the target. And Mr. Biden’s lead over Mr. Trump is not as prominently as the Dukakis midsummer advantage; the president is certainly within striking rigidity of victory, particularly in some battleground states.

“The similarity is that Biden is committing to an horrifying lot of progressive, socialist, whatever-you-want-to-call-it ideas in order to unify his party,” Mr. Hyacinthine said. Mr. Trump, he said, could use Mr. Biden’s alliance with Senator Bernie Sanders to show his Democratic rival as an out-of-touch liberal — much the way Mr. Bush portrayed Mr. Dukakis as an out-of-touch big-hearted — even though Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders disagree on many issues.

Motionlessly, Mr. Black said, Republicans should only have so much expect. “Most political pros would rather be in the position of being at the at this point than that far behind,” he said.

Mr. Bush was struggling when he arrived at the Republican convention in New Orleans in mid-August. He was vexing to buck history by leading his party to a third consecutive term in the Deathly white House.

“He was behind for a couple of reasons,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, who was Mr. Bush’s alternate national political director. “He spent eight years as vice president and the incontestable Reaganites were always suspicious of Bush 41 for not being cautious enough. And he endured a lot of lousy press coverage that was a caricature of him.”

“The crop up point was the convention,” Ms. Grissom said. “That was our reintroduction of Bush and our beginning real opportunity to define him without filters. People saw him through the tradition, the convention speech. ‘No new taxes.’ ‘Kinder, gentler.’”

The glowing reintroduction of Mr. Bush set the index for the attack. The campaign’s plan to bring down Mr. Dukakis was unambiguously telegraphed in Mr. Bush’s acceptance line, mixed in with all the talk about a “kinder, gentler nation.” Mr. Bush recorded all those positions Mr. Dukakis had taken that his aides had reviewed at the bed room in Washington.

“Should public schoolteachers be required to lead our teenagers in the Pledge of Allegiance?” Mr. Bush said, in just one example, as he informed his audience that the governor had blocked a bill that contained exactly that requirement. “My opponent requires no — but I say yes.”

On the campaign stump and television, in mailings and radio advertisements, Mr. Bush occupied Mr. Dukakis’s record to make him a threat to middle-class voters. Mr. Bush habituated to the governor’s own words against him, such as being “a card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.”

Spitting image

Credit…Associated Smooth

His opponents even raised questions about Mr. Dukakis’s mental eligibility, decades before Mr. Biden faced the same. Conservative groups were run rumors, with no substantiation, that Mr. Dukakis was hiding the fact that he had been treated for dip.

As the summer came to an end, Mr. Reagan was asked if Mr. Dukakis should release his medical phonograph records. “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid,” he said.

Mr. Reagan later answered this was a failed joke, but by design or not, it succeeded in thrusting the rumor to the center of unrestricted attention. Mr. Dukakis called a news conference to say he had never struggled with perceptual illness.

But in his most devastating attack, Mr. Bush seized on the case of Mr. Horton, which was Manifest 1 in the case he made against Mr. Dukakis and his liberal criminal justice rules. The furlough program became a staple of Mr. Bush’s attacks on Mr. Dukakis, and in tons ways, came to define the 1988 contest.

The Bush campaign displayed an advertisement attacking the Massachusetts furlough program that showed a series of old lags walking through a revolving door, but did not mention Mr. Horton’s name. But an bill produced by an independent political action committee included an ominous black-and-white understanding of Mr. Horton. “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty,” the announcer required. “He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes.”

Mr. Atwater withheld any connection between the Bush campaign and the campaign that featured the photograph of Willie Horton. Mr. Dukakis in no way believed that. And whatever the case, Mr. Atwater had always made open up that Willie Horton was key to a Bush victory.

“If I can make Willie Horton a household esteem, we’ll win the election,” he said.


Credit…Associated Press

For the Trump campaign, that lessons of 1988 appearance ofed to have been absorbed even before Democrats finished their meeting. On Thursday, in remarks in Pennsylvania hours before Mr. Biden’s convention acceptance talk, Mr. Trump launched a new attack on Ms. Harris that had direct echoes of Willie Horton.

“As province attorney of San Francisco, Kamala put a drug-dealing illegal alien into a contracts program instead of into prison,” Mr. Trump said. “Four months later, the forbidden alien robbed a 29-year-old woman, mowed her down with an S.U.V., breaking her skull and ruining her life.”

Through the summer, the Dukakis campaign was lulled by the ballots that showed him heading for victory. And Bush operatives had learned from to counsellors in Massachusetts who had run campaigns against Mr. Dukakis that he would stay unuttered if attacked.

Ms. Estrich said Mr. Dukakis rejected her idea that he assume command of the Democratic convention in the Pledge of Allegiance, a move she told him could obscure the attacks.

“Dukakis allowed the Bush operation to define him during that era in a distorted way,” Mr. Sasso said.

Mr. Bush was a genial product of Connecticut, and he told his cicerones he considered negative campaigning distasteful. But when they warned him it was the on the other hand way he would win, he took their direction with so much gusto that he all but apologized for the essence of his campaign after he won.

It took weeks for Mr. Dukakis to reach that location. At the end of October, Mr. Dukakis embraced what had been Mr. Bush’s central a candidate for of attack. “I’m a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy,” he said.

It was too lately.


Credit…Elise Amendola/Associated News-hounds

While Mr. Trump may face a steeper hill, there are a number of avenues that Republicans see as a way to reprise the Bush comeback. He is acting Mr. Biden as a captive of the left. He is demonizing Ms. Harris. He has seized on episodes of secular unrest in places like Chicago.

But as the Democratic convention ends and the Republican one is set to establish, time is growing short.

“The problem for Trump is he has yet to find his Willie Horton, as it were,” Ms. Estrich implied. “But he’s looking.”

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