|The Debate||The Inauguration|
The campaign of 1988 was centered on social and
cultural issues, such as prisoner furloughs and capital punishment, rather than
domestic and foreign problems. The candidates themselves did not ignore
the major issues, but rather journalists trivialized them. Dukakis
proposed cuts in military spending, and using the money saved for programs in
education, health care, and numerous other social programs. Bush
wanted to continue the conservative economic programs that had developed under
President Reagan. He called for cuts in the capital gains tax, and
promised voters, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
The Presidential Election of 1988 was one of the most negative. Under the guidance of Lee Atwater, Bush attacked Dukakis on many fronts. Dukakis, for his part, was slow to respond to charges that he was “soft on crime” and “lacking in patriotism.” The press took full advantage of the negativity. Willie Horton became a household name, and Dukakis will be remembered for being weak.
Of the many ads that the media latched onto, the one that received the most coverage and controversy was that of Willie Horton’s victims. Horton was a convicted murderer who raped a woman and brutally stabbed her companion while he was out on furlough from a Massachusetts prison while Dukakis was Governor. A poll conducted by Harris found that 60 % of those that were polled remembered the furlough ad. From the first airing of the ad until the time of the poll in October, the percent that reported that Dukakis was soft on crime rose from 52 to 63 %.
The Dukakis campaign responded with a commercial that noted that Bush helped establish halfway houses in Texas while he was a Congressman. One of the paroles committed murder. According to the ad, “In 1968, George Bush helped an ex-convict fund a halfway house for early released felons in Houston, Texas. In 1982, one of those prisoners raped and murdered a minister’s wife.” The commercial came too late, or had little effect on the campaign.
In the election, reporters were more focused on strategy, rather than issues. Their coverage focused on the effectiveness of charges and countercharges, not on the relevance to the presidency. The Horton instance was atypical of Massachusetts furlough program. In fact, it had 99.9% success rate. Reporters used descriptive language to analyze the Horton story. Dukakis’ rebuttal came in the form of statistics and abstract concepts. Compared to the visual, personalized fear of Horton, the American public vividly remembered that a convicted black man brutally raped a white female, and attacked her finance while out on furlough, not that the circumstances were unusual, and specifically chosen. The personal threat that Horton posed stayed with the voters, and was further perpetuated by the media and PAC commercials.
In the second Bush-Dukakis debate, Bush asked Dukakis how he would react if his wife was raped and murdered. Rather than reacting with emotion or outrage at the question, he responded simply by reiterating his opposition to the death penalty. In an interview with Tom Brokaw, Dukakis was asked whether he thought the campaign was without passion. Dukakis, who had been referred to as cold and unfeeling by the media, responded in a calm and solemn manner with a lengthy explanation about why he felt that this was untrue, once again further perpetuating the media’s initial reaction.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Bush declared his desire for “a kinder, gentler nation.” When describing his opposition to government welfare programs, “a thousand points of light” symbolized his hope for the American public to take on more charity and volunteer programs. When the general public expressed their confusion with the statement, Bush sympathized. He bungled it once himself saying, “a thousand shining hills.” Dukakis, similarly confused but not wishing to be left out, called for “240 million points of light,” referring to all of the people. The Washington Post capitalized on the statement in a political cartoon. They ran a picture of a beer drinking bar fly telling his friend that he endorsed Bush’s “one thousand pints of Lite” pledge.
At the American Legion convention on September 7, Bush made the most celebrated tongue-slip of the campaign. “Forty-seven years ago, we were hit and hit hard at Pearl Harbor.” He spent the next few days joking about his blunder, making comments at one speech “you ought to vote for me. I knew about Pearl Harbor three months before it happened.” Dukakis had his fair share of blunders. In one speech, criticizing Bush’s support of the arms sales to Iran, he stated, “I don’t question Mr. Bush’s terrorism.” Laughing, he corrected himself, and substituted patriotism.
The campaign of ’88 used the American flag to its greatest capacity. Both Dukakis and Bush stood in front of the flag when speaking. Campaign workers made sure that the crowds received miniature flags to wave. For television audiences watching the rallies, they saw patriotism and unity, a candidate standing before the American flag.
Bush’s media adviser, Roger Alies, said that the media was only interested in gaffes, attacks, and good visuals. He declared, “That’s one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage.” Alies went on to describe his “orchestra pit theory,” that if one candidate had an answer to the Middle East problem, and the other candidate fell in the orchestra pit, that the candidate that fell would be on the evening news. Judy Woodruff, of The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, asked, “So you’re saying the notion of the candidate saying, ‘I want to run for President because I want to do something for this country,’ is crazy.” Alies replied, “Suicide.”
The election has been declared “perhaps the most mean-spirited and negative campaign in modern-day American political history.” Negative campaigning was promoted to new heights, effectively used, and forever changing the face of Presidential politics. Journalists focused very little on the issues that candidates were trying to discuss, but rather capitalized on the negativity.