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Could Obama Be Another Dukakis?

By Susan Estrich

It is a thought that sends shivers down the backs of Democrats, a name that brings to mind memories of an election lost that might have been won, against a war hero once referred to in headlines as a "wimp" who won not so much by his own strengths but because of the skill of his operatives in painting his lesser-known opponent as an out of touch "liberal" who refused to salute the flag or admit his mistakes, not to mention his supposedly unpatriotic wife.

Could Obama be another Dukakis?

It isn't just die-hard Clinton supporters who are pointing out the similarities. Even some Obama backers who believe that the nomination fight is over see the possible parallels, and are determined to avoid them, or at least try.

I was there. Mike Dukakis was (and is) a friend of mine. And so I can say that, while the danger is certainly worth recognizing, Barack Obama is no Mike Dukakis. Or at least he doesn't have to be.

There is no question that the Republicans will try to do to Obama what they did to Dukakis: paint him as a liberal, out of touch with the values of average (white) Americans, so far left that he has left America.

The ammunition is there: the "most liberal voting record in the Senate," according to one publication, even if it's a brief one; the refusal to wear the flag pin on the basis of a principle most people would have trouble recognizing (Remember the principle that Dukakis used to explain his veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead their students in saying the pledge of allegiance? No? Just as well), not to mention the 21st century version of Willie Horton, and sorry, but yes, I do mean Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose rants are almost as scary to many people as Horton's escapades while on furlough.

Did Kitty Dukakis ever burn an American flag at a demonstration against the Vietnam War? Actually, she didn't, but that didn't stop Republicans from questioning her patriotism by claiming that she did.

Did Michelle Obama actually say that she had never been proud of her country until her husband's run for President? You see what I mean.

Will John McCain do any of this? Of course not, no more than the "bad" Willie Horton ad was done by the Bush for President committee. No, it was done by a renegade, Jesse Helms-affiliated, North Carolina committee, the same kind of committee that was running Jeremiah Wright ads in last week's North Carolina primary, ads that of course didn't cost Obama anything with black voters, but may well have played some role in his losing the white vote in that state to Hillary Clinton by double digits.

But Dukakis was complicit in his own destruction, as were those of us in his campaign, who couldn't convince him to get in front of it. We knew Willie Horton was coming. We knew there would be attacks on his patriotism and his values because of vetos like the flag salute.

I spent hours trying to convince him to lead the pledge of allegiance at the Democratic Convention. No less a political sage than one Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, came up with the lines to defuse the Willie Horton issue, by encouraging Dukakis to admit that it was a mistake, and to tell the story of his own family's victimizations at the hands of criminals.

Dukakis, to his credit or discredit, depending on how you want to look at it, didn't want to do it, to play those games, to play into their hands, to assume the worst and fight it and then fight back at the same level.

It was the same instinct that lead Obama, a month ago, to refuse to "throw Jeremiah Wright overboard," as we put it in politics, instead comparing him to a member of his family, defending him, remaining loyal, even invoking his own white grandmother.

Wright, of course, rewarded Obama for his loyalty by going on a narcissistic tirade the likes of which left Obama no choice but to do a month later what he should have done in the first instance. Lesson learned. Fool me once, shame on you. Barack Obama made clear by his turnaround on Wright that he would not be fooled twice. That is critical.

There is no question, whatever Cindy McCain might say about not wanting to win so badly that they resort to negative campaigns, that the people who do want John McCain to win that badly will resort to the worst sort of negative campaign. Whether McCain will take responsibility for it, or like most of his predecessors, pretend it is all beyond his control, remains to be seen.

But the good news for Obama is that this campaign against Hillary Clinton should have taught him a lesson that Dukakis did not learn by his primary victory, nor, frankly, did John Kerry learn by his. Mud sticks. Things get worse, not better, if you ignore them.

There is no underestimating the force of a negative assault. You deal with it not by rising above it, but by defusing it, admitting your mistakes, putting on a flag pin not explaining why you're not wearing one, throwing Rev. Wright overboard not explaining his good works.

Al Gore raised the Willie Horton issue once in the Democratic primary, in New York, but the reaction among Democrats was so negative that he dropped it. In retrospect, that was too bad. Dukakis needed a dress rehearsal, the sort Obama got on Rev. Wright.

The truth is that there was only one answer to Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who raped a woman while out on a weekend furlough. The answer was that he shouldn't have been out on furlough. But come the fall, even Bill Clinton couldn't convince Mike Dukakis to simply admit that; Dukakis insisted, with reason, if you were having the fight in a classroom and not the political arena, that the furlough program was well-grounded in policy terms, that the federal government had a similar program, that wardens supported such efforts because they contributed positively to prison discipline. All true, but politically speaking, just as irrelevant as all of Reverend Wright's good works on the South Side of Chicago, or his record as a veteran in establishing his patriotism.

There will be much talk in coming weeks, if and when Obama does secure the nomination, of how this fight against Clinton has weakened him. I see it differently. I think it has strengthened him, by preparing him for what's to come, and teaching him to deal with the mud that is sure to be thrown in his direction.

But the most important difference between Obama and Dukakis has absolutely nothing to do with the two men, or their primary opponents, or the issues that did or did not get raised. It's the difference between where the country was then, and where it is now. In June 1988, a majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track. Although the wrong track numbers had been higher earlier in the year, by the summer they turned around. Americans were pleased with the direction of the country. Today, the equivalent numbers are 80% wrong track. Ask any pollster and they'll tell you that there is no better indication of which party will win an election than the right track-wrong track numbers. This should be a Democratic year. Obama, if he is the candidate, will face a negative machine. But in the end, that machine cannot change the way people feel about the direction the country is heading, or the party that is responsible for it.

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