Just days before Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H. W. Bush faced off for the White House in the 1988 election, journalist Chris Wallace intoned on the Sunday talk show Meet the Press, “a lot of people are saying this has been the worst presidential campaign in memory. The most negative, the worst of choice of candidates.”
Despite that grim assessment, the 1988 race has largely been forgotten — remembered, if at all, through a series of phrases like “Monkey Business,” “No New Taxes,” and “Willie Horton” that operate as floating signifiers with little connection to the election itself. Academics, too, have largely ignored the race, focusing instead on the more significant and realigning elections of 1980 and 1992. In Brutal Campaign: How the 1988 Election Set the Stage for Twenty-First-Century American Politics, historian Robert L. Fleegler sets out to change that view, and in doing so offers an essential reassessment of the neglected contest.
With notable exceptions — think Rick Perlstein’s engrossing trilogy of the rise of the modern US right — books about campaigns have largely been the domain of reporters and insiders, often published in the immediate aftermath of the election. Fleegler lacks the journalistic vantage point of Theodore White (The Making of the President series) or the gonzo style of Hunter Thompson (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72). But his position of remove enables him to take a scholar’s approach to the topic, culling material from archival sources not available at the time of the election and from interviews with many of the campaign principals, including Susan Estrich (Dukakis’s campaign manager) and Bush adviser Charlie Black (of the infamous firm Black, Manafort, and Stone).
The most notable (and arresting) original material comes from a 2017 interview the author conducted with Dukakis. It is one of Dukakis’s most candid and extensive reflections about the election, featuring everything from comments on Gary Hart’s sex life (“[if you go into public service] have a good but conventional sex life”) to admissions of campaign missteps (“I made a very serious mistake and it was my decision. Nobody else’s. That we would not [respond] to the Bush attack campaign”).
The benefit of hindsight enables Fleegler to argue for the significance of ’88, showing how the election reflected many of the larger social and political developments of the 1970s, especially the restructuring of the US economy and workforce. He also suggests that the election introduced a series of new approaches to US campaigns, including opposition research and “soft money” contributions, which are workarounds to the cap on individual donations. These would forever reshape presidential bids. Perhaps the most significant change occurred in media, with the rise of cable news, the press’s tabloid-esque commitment to exposing unseemly parts of candidates’ personal lives, and the dizzying barrage of advertisements, many funded by shadowy “independent” committees (the precursor to super PACs).
By reconstructing the 1988 election from primary to general in painstaking detail, Brutal Campaign reveals how Bush’s decisive win — 53.4 to 45.7 percent of the popular vote, 426 electoral votes to 111 — was hardly foreordained. The first half of the book looks at the primaries, which on both sides boasted crowded fields that featured Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Bob Dole, and even a brief appearance by Donald Trump. Fleegler reminds us often-forgotten moments, such as the flak over the similarities between a Biden speech and that of a British Labour Party leader, and the campaign of televangelist Pat Robertson, who launched his bid in front of a booing crowd in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but who would come in second in the Iowa caucuses. Perhaps reflecting the nature of the primary process — and paralleling what would happen in the 2020 Democratic primary — it was the two most vanilla candidates who ultimately emerged victorious.
The Real Dukakis
Brutal Campaign joins a series of works (my own included) that have sought to demonstrate that Dukakis was hardly the lefty that Bush painted him to be and that history has remembered him as. Rather, he was the quintessential “Atari Democrat” — more in line with the pro-business centrism of the Democratic Leadership Council than the prolabor liberalism of the New Deal. As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis promoted a technocratic agenda of work-based welfare reform and private sector–led growth. He centered his campaign around the successful tech-driven revival of the Massachusetts economy known as the Massachusetts Miracle. Throughout his 1988 run he praised the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, later passed under Bill Clinton), stating in the first Democratic primary debate: “More trade is better than less trade. That ought to be our governing policy.”
Yet Brutal Campaign is more than a lengthy examination of Dukakis’s policy positions. Fleegler details how the Bush campaign deftly shifted attention from its milquetoast message and cast Dukakis as an elitist Massachusetts liberal who was soft on crime, weak on defense, and an unpatriotic, “card-carrying member of the ACLU” that a decade earlier had vetoed a bill requiring teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush’s bare-knuckle tactics drew directly from the playbook of his GOP predecessors Ronald Reagan and, especially, Richard Nixon: many Bush advisers (like Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater) had first cut their teeth on those campaigns. It is in fact less notable that they deployed this Nixonian tactic than that it worked in service of a patently blue-blood candidate like Bush (just as it would two decades later for a billionaire like Trump).
The clearest example of Bush’s willingness to play dirty was the Willie Horton ad. The TV spot featured convicted murderer William “Willie” Horton, who escaped from prison while on a Massachusetts weekend furlough program and went on to rape a woman and stab her fiancé. The ad earned wide condemnation immediately for featuring a black man’s mug shot in order to play on racial fears and is perhaps the quintessential example of dog-whistle politics. While the spot was technically produced by an independent committee, the Bush campaign’s fingerprints were all over it. Fleegler closely tracks the ad’s evolution, but he is also careful not to reduce Dukakis’s defeat solely to this moment.
There were, after all, many other mistakes: from Dukakis’s decision to take a break from campaign appearances during the summer of 1988 to attend to mundane business in Massachusetts, to his comically awful tank ride that was intended to prove his defense bona fides. Perhaps most costly of all, Fleegler writes, Dukakis said at the second debate that he would not favor the death penalty even for someone who raped and murdered his wife, Kitty Dukakis. His flat, emotionless tone, more than his staunch opposition to the death penalty, alienated the moderate voters whom he was working so hard to win over.
Dukakis’s gaffe, coupled with the Willie Horton ad, convinced mainstream Democrats in subsequent election cycles to avoid appearing “soft on crime” at all costs. Bill Clinton’s decision to return to Arkansas at the height of the 1992 presidential primaries to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, alongside the strong support among Democratic politicians for the 1994 crime bill (which directly fueled mass incarceration), both reveal the devastating consequences of the “tough on crime” turn. It also reminds us that politics and policy are often inseparable.
The Race to the Middle
Fleegler’s main goal is to highlight the parallels between 1988 and the contemporary political landscape. However, he does address one critical divergence: the number of undecided and unaffiliated voters in 1988 versus today. At key moments in the general election, there were large fluctuations in the polls, and many voters did not express strong loyalties. Fleegler contends that these dynamics spurred Bush and Dukakis to move their campaigns to the center and focus on swing voters rather than try to solidify support among their respective bases.
Here, I wish Fleegler might have abandoned his dispassionate tone and analyzed the implications of the race to the middle. Brutal Campaign includes a long discussion of Dukakis’s vice-presidential choice and notes that Jesse Jackson actively petitioned for the position, even flying to Boston just before the Democratic convention to have dinner with the Dukakis family on uly 4. Jackson had run a strong primary campaign on a left-wing platform of raising the corporate tax rate, enacting universal healthcare and other social investments, and supporting self-determination for Palestine; he had assembled a vibrant “Rainbow Coalition” of workers, farmers, and progressives of all colors.
Yet Dukakis selected Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative businessman, who Dukakis believed could help attract swing voters and blunt Bush’s “Massachusetts liberal” attacks. As Fleegler notes, Dukakis failed to foster much enthusiasm among African-American voters in the November election: while he received the overwhelming majority of the “black vote,” turnout was historically low. It’s fair to assume that tapping Jackson, who had strong approval among black voters, would have generated more support. In addition, Jackson’s agenda had earned staunch support from Bernie Sanders, who served as a campaign surrogate and would later say that Jackson’s 1988 campaign was a major inspiration for his own presidential bids. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that Democrats’ decision to lurch to the middle that year had reverberating effects on party politics and policy for more than thirty years.
Counterfactuals are often pointless parlor games, and it can be a fool’s errand to imagine what might have happened had Jackson won the Democratic nomination or had been the vice-presidential choice. Yet spotlighting Jackson’s bid provides a chance to consider alternative ways of looking at the politics of the past beyond the rigidness of the two-party system. It also suggests ways to imagine a different type of campaign story and politics for the future.