More than two decades after then-Vice President George H.W. Bush thumped Democrat challenger Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, a new documentary from NBC contends the lesson learned was not to let attacks go unanswered.
"It was one of those years where Dukakis was leading and we saw a 25 percent swing in three months. And it was largely thanks to the Bush campaign's negative attacks and the fact that Dukakis gave those attacks credibility by not responding until it was too late. The big lesson being that American voters prefer fighting dirty to not fighting at all," Will Rabbe, who produced and directed the 37-minute film, tells The Washington Post
Currently a producer for MSNBC's "Hardball,"
Rabbe said he wanted to make "Above the Fray" the "definitive account" of a landmark campaign that saw the Massachusetts governor drop 25 percentage points in three months of the race.
In the documentary released by NBC Learn, Dukakis says "one of the great lessons of '88, sadly, and that is you've got to anticipate an attack campaign and you've got to have a carefully thought-out strategy for dealing with it in advance of when it happens."
Dukakis is presently a professor at Boston's Northeastern University.
"But the race heralded a new approach to campaigning for president. Clinton picked up on that, with the idea that it’s hard to talk when their fist is in the mouth. The whole idea of rapid response in the early 1990s was because they watched 1988 and were tired of losing. And the Obama team basically did what Bush did in 2004," adds Rabbe.
The documentary, however, is not the first time Dukakis has addressed the collapse of his 1988 campaign.
In 2012, Dukakis bitterly claimed that if he had responded to attacks the nation would not be "in this mess" created by George W. Bush.
“It all started first with me. If I had beaten the old man, we never would have heard of the kid [George W. Bush], and we wouldn't be in this mess. It was my decision that I would not respond to the Bush camp. The lesson is that you can’t do it," said Dukakis in an interview with McClatchy
reporter Ben Barber.
As Mother Jones notes, however, the genesis of the Willie Horton-furlough issue
was then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore during the Democrat primary and that Dukakis failed by not responding to his attacks.
"Dukakis didn't pay the blast much mind. But Gore's assault came too late in the game and did not help him overtake Dukakis," writes David Corn.
While there were negative campaign ads aired before 1988, political commentators continue to use the race as a reference point for a variety of issues
"Ever since Michael Dukakis lost miserably to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election, Democrats have approached the death penalty issue with caution. Too much caution," wrote Washington Post columnist Stephen Stromberg in a piece examining the politics of the death penalty.
When an ad was aired by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) attacking Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford's position on sentencing form during the last election, The Washington Post was quick to draw comparison
with Willie Horton.
"And it's evocative — almost certainly intentionally — of the ads run by George H. W. Bush in 1988 against Democrat Michael Dukakis," observed Post reporter Phillip Bump.
Another ad run during the 1988 campaign was the subject of a documentary, titled "Dukakis and The Tank" produced by Politico magazine
The short film attempts to straighten out some of the confusion over who was responsible for finding the footage used in "the tank ad,"
which showed Dukakis riding around in a tank looking very awkward wearing a combat helmet.
The ad was effectively used by the Bush campaign to raise questions about Dukakis' defense policy and to reinforce existing impressions that the candidate was weak on military issues.
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