Dukakis and the Myth of Democratic Extremism

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Democratic Party, Michael Dukakis

Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland.

...Here’s Joe Nocera in The New York Times this past Monday, affecting to call out “those Banana Republicans,” which according to the rules means he has to say something mean about Democrats too: “A party controlled by its most extreme faction will ultimately be forced back to the center. The Democrats learned that when Walter Mondale was losing to Ronald Reagan, and Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush. Now it is the Republicans who don’t seem to understand that their extreme tactics are pleasing a small percentage of their countrymen but alienating everyone else.”

Leave aside Walter Mondale, who actually lost because the incumbent Republican enjoyed an economic boom that had much more to do with Jimmy Carter’s actions than his own. Let’s talk about Michael Dukakis, that poor hapless fellow who saved Massachusetts from fiscal perdition but ended up as one of history’s pathetic losers, the mousy man in a military helmet on the tank. What was the entire rationale for his successful 1988 nominating campaign? That he was anti-ideology, all the way down. The signature line from his acceptance speech was, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values.” The son of Greek immigrants, absent an iota of ethnic color, he was mocked as “Zorba the Clerk.” (I learned from Wikipedia that composer John Williams wrote a “Fanfare for Michael Dukakis,” which is too funny for words—like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dishrag,” or “Dimanche apres midi sur l’Île de Rikers.)” He forced the second-place candidate, Jesse Jackson—the ideological guy, the guy whom the party actually would have nominated if it had been “controlled by its most extreme faction”—to wait in the convention parking lot before he would meet with him. (Even his praise for Jackson in his acceptance speech was anti-ideological: “a man whose candidacy says…to every American, you are a full shareholder in our dream.” A shareholder!) His campaign slogan was “good jobs at good wages”—aux armes, citoyens!...

Read entire article at The Nation

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