May 9, 2004
One Chance for a First Impression
The message was simple: Mr. Dukakis was a liberal, "outside the mainstream," who let murderers out of prison on weekend furloughs, would not require schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance and was soft on defense.
Mr. Dukakis, who found it hard to believe that the charges would stick, resisted fighting back. His negatives soared. A generation of Democratic political operatives, many of them now working for Senator John Kerry, swore never again. A generation of Republican operatives, some of them now working to re-elect President Bush, took notes.
So how relevant is the Dukakis model for 2004? How hard is it for a challenger today to introduce himself to the American people, pass a threshold of credibility as a potential commander in chief and at the same time beat back relentless efforts by the opposition to define him first? As harrowing as Mr. Dukakis's experience was 16 years ago, the task facing modern challengers may be even rougher in the blindingly fast world of 24-hour cable and Internet warfare.
There are, at times, eerie echoes of 1988 on the campaign trail these days. For two months, many Democrats have watched, queasily, as the Republicans roll out another disciplined campaign against their nominee as a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal who is soft on defense, with a huge wave of paid advertising backed up by legions of Republicans and surrogates, all firmly on message. The commercials rattle off some weapon systems Mr. Kerry opposed financing at one time or another, just as they did against Mr. Dukakis in 1988.
Moreover, Democrats have discovered - once again - that a candidate can win a party's nomination, make the covers of the national magazines and still be unknown to many voters, who are only intermittently paying attention right now. With a $25 million advertising campaign launched last week, the Kerry forces are scrambling to fill in the blanks, before the Bush campaign does, and to regain control of the candidate's story - "a lifetime of service and strength," as they put it.
But many Republicans share the view, or hope, of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who says of Mr. Kerry: "The country really doesn't know him, unlike Reagan, who'd been around awhile. And the country is being introduced to him more by the Bush campaign than by the Kerry campaign."
Mr. Bush has his own political challenges; any race with a president seeking re-election is, in the end, a referendum on the incumbent and the way things are going. A new round of polls last week showed growing discontent with the war in Iraq and a drop in Mr. Bush's approval rating, even before the prisoner abuse scandal fully registered with the voters. Those signs make it all the more imperative for the Republicans to present Mr. Kerry as an unacceptable alternative, some strategists say, and to do so quickly.
In the race to define the Democratic nominee, the Kerry campaign faces challenges that Mr. Dukakis never did: an incredibly complex world of Web sites, e-mail, talk radio and 24-hour cable shows that gives the opposition any number of outlets, at any time of the day, to move an argument or make a charge, undermine a strength or highlight a weakness.
Thomas E. Patterson, a professor of government and the press at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said, "It's easier, in this communications environment, as compared to '88, to get mud to stick, in part because you've got so many ways of doing it."
Moreover, if a candidate decides to respond to every accusation - post-Dukakis - he can find himself perpetually on the defensive, in many forums, on every front.
A case in point was the recent flurry of charges over whether Mr. Kerry in fact deserved all three of his Purple Hearts, a challenge that amazed many Democrats. "It's a phenomenal debate to be in, for a guy who walks around with shrapnel in his leg," said David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant.
There was a time when campaigns unfolded at a slower, more stately pace; challengers won a long series of primaries and caucuses and had the time to build an image before it was deconstructed.
Sixteen years ago, the campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush was considered state of the art, from a communications standpoint, but it did not mount its full offensive against Mr. Dukakis until mid-summer. By the 1996 campaign, when Senator Bob Dole was challenging Bill Clinton, the Democrats began their assault in the previous year.
"As soon as Bob Dole started moving toward the nomination, he got carpet-bombed, and here was a man who had been around for years," said David R. Gergen, a White House adviser under both parties, who is now a professor at the Kennedy School. The Bush team, Mr. Gergen added, "draws heavily from recent historical analogies, and that's one of them."
Mr. Kerry, who essentially secured the nomination in early March and was down to only a few million dollars in the bank, came under immediate, withering attack.
What are the rules in this new world? "We all know how to do it in the abstract," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant. "Run the bio spots, roll out the issue spots that identify your candidate with things people really care about. But that was really the 1970's. Ain't nobody lets you do that anymore. Every forum of definition is fought over - the Internet, direct mail - they're going to try to contest it."
Many Democrats complain that the Republicans have the advantage of a huge echo chamber with the conservative media establishment. And, some say, Republicans are simply better at working the news media, getting their message across, appealing to the journalistic conventions that favor conflict and controversy.
Grover Norquist, an influential conservative strategist, scoffs at that idea. "Democrats just say that when their guy's getting beat," he said. "Look at what the Democrats did to Quayle. They gutted that guy within three days of his being named."
The patron saint of Democratic challengers, of course, is Bill Clinton, who managed to survive a harrowing primary season in 1992, redefine himself for the general election and defeat an incumbent president. But he also had the benefit of the strongest third-party candidate in 80 years, H. Ross Perot, who was drawing (and returning) much of the Republican fire that year.
For their part, Mr. Kerry's advisers insist they are sanguine in 2004, cheered by 1992 and ever mindful of 1988. Yes, they say, their candidate's negative ratings have risen, in some polls, but the two candidates remain very close in the polls.
Most important, they say, this is not the summer of 1988, a time of economic growth and relative peace. "We have some huge issues on the table this time: national security; Iraq; the economy, which despite some indicators continues to be an enormous source of concern," said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry and a Dukakis veteran. "These issues are leading voters to a fundamentally different calculus."
Republicans counter that the Kerry campaign has its own fundamental flaws. "Modern liberal Democrats from Massachusetts do not have a coherent theme to explain why they would make America better," Mr. Gingrich said.
The past, in other words, is never really dead in presidential campaigns. It's not even past.