My first experience with political disillusionment came during the late summer of 1988. Coming out of the Democratic Convention, Michael Dukakis had an enormous 17% lead in the polls over George Herbert Walker Bush. Bush was widely suspected of being implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, he was seen as lacking leadership skills, he was unpopular with the Reagan crowd, and the biggest MSM talking point about him was that he was a ‘wimp’. Making matters worse for Bush, his selection of Dan Quayle to be his running mate was deeply controversial and prevented him from getting the usual bounce out of his own convention.
But then something happened that changed the minds of tens of millions of voters, virtually overnight.
The GOP started running commercials about the Massachusetts prison furlough program, focusing on one example of a furloughed black man who raped a white women.
On October 5, a day after the “Weekend Passes” ad was taken off the airwaves, the Bush campaign ran its own ad, “Revolving Door,” which also attacked Dukakis over the weekend furlough program. While the advertisement did not mention Horton or feature his photograph, it did depict a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of prison through a revolving door. The commercial was filmed at an actual state prison in Draper, Utah, but the persons depicted – thirty in all, including three African-Americans and two Hispanics – were all paid actors.
Dukakis’s poll numbers immediately began to fall, eventually bottoming out at around 45%. The Willie Horton ads were not the only explanation for Dukakis’s decline, but it was obvious that the ads had been extremely effective in changing an enormous amount of people’s minds.
My faith in the intelligence of the American electorate, in the importance of issues, and on the importance of debate, would never be restored.
The primacy of personality over substance, of projection over policy, of negative campaigning over positive campaigning… that has only been hammered home by the 2000 and 2004 elections.
I’ve become more interested in studying the pursuit and uses of power than in the best ways to explain and defend specific policies to the American public. And I learned another thing from George W. Bush: you don’t need a mandate, you don’t need popular support for your policies, you don’t need to reach out to the other side, you need not make any effort at bipartisanship…no matter what the pundits say, or what the public claims to want…you can ram home your agenda with even the slimmest of majorities. People respond to the confidence one places in one’s positions more than they respond to the positions themselves.
This is a cynical view but it has been demonstrated repeatedly in Presidential elections. When Mondale admitted he would raise taxes (and insisted Reagan would as well) he was not rewarded for his honesty. When Reagan lied and said he would never raise taxes because it was a bedrock principle for him, he was rewarded for being strong. When Dukakis responded honestly (but without the requisite manly outrage) to a debate question about the death penalty for someone who had raped and killed his wife, he was seen as weak and his image suffered.
When Poppy Bush reneged on his pledge not to raise taxes, he was seen as a waffler, and as weak. When Clinton backed down on gays in the military and some of his early nominations he was seen as weak and the Dems were punished at the polls. When Gore kept shifting styles in the debates he was seen as lacking core convictions. He was seen as weak. When Kerry couldn’t explain his vote against the 87 billion dollar military supplemental, he was seen as a flip-flopper, and as weak.
Dubya, by contrast, never admitted mistakes. He never expressed doubts, or allowed himself to publicly discuss nuances. He layed out his beliefs (however unpopular) and he stuck to them.
There have been a lot of studies that have attempted to explain the differences between Democrats and Republicans. George Lakoff has focused on the ‘strict father’ vs. ‘nurturing mother’ models. Others have focused on a tendency to see things in moral absolutes vs. nuanced relativities. There may be a kind of congenital, or innate, disadvantage for Democrats when it comes to projecting certitude and confidence in our positions. At a certain level, we feel that the display of certitude is dishonest, or anti-intellectual, or overly simplistic.
The Party is going through a period of introspection right now. Losing two consecutive Presidential elections control of both houses of Congress will do that to a party. Everyone is looking to find a strategy that will win us back a share of power, and there are a lot of conflicting theories out there.
The first thing I want to say is reassuring. Take a look at how narrowly Bush won his elections, and how small the GOP majorities in Congress are. And look at how much of the GOP agenda they have succeeded in pushing through. We should be reassured on two fronts. First, we don’t need landslide elections or massive changes in the mood of the electorate to go from completely shut out of power, to completely in control. Second, if we do gain narrow majorities in Congress and the Presidency, we now know that we do not need to pander to the center or to reach out to the right, in order to pass progressive legislation. We simply need the will to do so.
As the left ties itself in knots trying to explain its failures, remember that the American people didn’t reject our policies, they rejected our candidates (and barely so). What the electorate wants to see is that we believe in ourselves and that we are willing to fight.
If the public were turned off by thuggish practices then Tom DeLay and Karl Rove wouldn’t be considered the two most successful strategists in American politics. If negative campaigning really turned people off, Willie Horton and Swift-Boat ads wouldn’t work.
We can get bogged down and distracted in wonkish debates. But what we really need to do is show the American people that we are not afraid to call our opponents crooks, cronies, and liars, that we want power more than they do, that we will fight for power and use it to fight for our agenda.
Putting a spine back in the party, being unafraid to use negative campaigning, using very tough straight-talk, all of that will do more to improve our chances at the polls than all the poll-tested policy intiatives in the world.