On July 26, 1988, veteran Boston Globe political writer Thomas Oliphant had a story on page A-12, in the newspaper’s “Campaign 88” section: “Dukakis gets bounce from convention.”
Laid out next to a picture of then-governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts taking out the trash (of course) at his Brookline home, the story reported the results of a soon-to-be-famous/notorious Newsweek/Gallup poll that showed Dukakis leading his presidential opponent, George H.W. Bush, by a 55-38 percent margin nationwide.
Oliphant cited three other polls that also showed Dukakis leading Bush by double-digit margins. “Dukakis has tried to press his new advantage,” Oliphant wrote, “launching an immediate ‘victory lap’ of the country that repeated many of his acceptance speech’s themes before enthusiastic crowds.”
The cautionary tale of Dukakis’s precipitous slide in the polls and subsequent loss to Bush has been repeated many times. The story features public relations gaffes, an ineffective debate performance, and the Bush campaign’s cynical, successful exploitation of a Massachusetts prison release program that resulted in the famous race-baiting Willie Horton ad, highlighting the case of a furloughed murderer who assaulted a man and raped a woman in Maryland.
Dukakis circa 1988 evokes Joe Biden right now. Some polls show Biden with a double-digit lead over Trump nationally, and with leads in states that Donald Trump won in 2016, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. The global forecasting institution Oxford Economics predicts a “historic defeat” for Trump in November.
I wouldn’t break out the running shoes for that victory lap quite yet.
In 1988, polite society gasped at the Bush campaign’s relentless below-the-belt pummeling of Dukakis, orchestrated by bad-boy messaging guru/campaign manager Lee Atwater. In August, the incumbent president, the cuddly Ronald Reagan of cherished memory, called Dukakis an “invalid,” catapulting rumors of our governor’s psychiatric debility from loony-tune Lyndon Larouche supermarket flyers to the front pages of America’s newspapers.
Reagan later claimed he was joking. Sound familiar?
“I think I dropped eight points in the week Reagan called me ‘the invalid,’” Dukakis recalled in a recent e-mail. “I never took those early polls seriously.”
That is ancient history now. The bottom-feeding now has no bottom. From the man who mused that ingesting bleach might cure the coronavirus, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hear dark allegations of a Joe Biden harem of flying monkeys surreptitiously kenneled in the Barack Obama White House.
I think Biden now is weaker than Dukakis in 1988. Biden is battling an incumbent president who can wield the levers of power to his own benefit almost any time he wants. And Biden, you can argue, is no Dukakis.
In 1988, Dukakis was near the height of his rhetorical and intellectual powers. He turned 55 just a few days before Election Day. By contrast, Biden is 77 and prone to cringe-worthy gaffes. As a presidential candidate, Dukakis took credit for the erstwhile “Massachusetts Miracle,” a sustained period of economic growth for which he doubtless had some responsibility.
What can Biden take credit for? A serviceable stint as a small-state senator, eight years of unremarkable vice-presidential yeomanry, and — lest we forget — an unblemished losing record in presidential campaigns. Graybeards recall that it was Dukakis campaign aides who shivved Biden in 1988, leaking a video showing that Biden had lifted a campaign speech from a British politician.
Even with Biden’s lead, Dukakis allows that “particularly this year, [polls] should be studied cautiously. Biden can and should win, but being at 50, no matter how weak your opponent is, is no guarantee of success.”
Dukakis should know. He’s been there.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.