A Torch Passes?

The election of 1988 is just on the periphery of our collective memory in 2020. The youngest voters to cast their ballots that year would have been born in 1970, making them 50 years old today. That means that it is time for historians and political scientists to begin writing in earnest about it, since most people today will have no memory of participating in it and because, after the passage of so much time, we can now begin to look at it without being biased by the heat of that partisan moment.

In his satisfying new book After Reagan: Bush, Dukakis, and the 1988 Election, Claremont political scientist Jack Pitney does precisely that. The work is another fine entry in the American Presidential Elections Series by the University Press of Kansas, which over the last 50 years has distinguished itself as the preeminent press for unbiased, first rate scholarship on American politics.

As befits this excellent series, Pitney has given us a fantastic, insightful, down-the-middle account of that election. His prose is accessible and his pacing is crisp, but never does he sacrifice scholarly rigor for readability. He takes the reader through a page-turning account of the context of the 1988 election, its events, and its implications. The main character in the story is George H.W. Bush rather than Michael Dukakis, for some obvious and not so obvious reasons. Predictably, Bush won the election, so it is mainly his story. But Bush was much more central to the national Republican Party than Dukakis was to the Democratic Party. In fact, the Massachusetts governor comes across as a bit of a peripheral player, a kind of northern Jimmy Carter, whose triumph in the 1988 nomination battle contest had more to do with a smart campaign taking advantage of a divided field than his prominence as a national figure.

At first glance, the election of 1988 might not appear to merit a lengthy entry. It does not seem very important in the grand sweep of subsequent events. No doubt, that is true to an extent. In the Democratic Party, Dukakis’ style of neoliberal technocracy gave way to Bill Clinton’s emotive “I feel your pain,” while on the Republican side, Bush’s genteel manner was soon overrun by Newt Gingrich’s ideological stridency.

But Pitney does an excellent job of highlighting the relevance of that campaign—pointing out how it was a capstone for long-running changes and implying how its campaign themes would reverberate into the future. Two narrative threads in the book seem especially noteworthy in today’s current political climate. First, by tracing the political career of Bush, Pitney effectively offers a history of the postwar GOP. The elder Bush more or less came from the moderate wing of the Republican Party—the party of Thomas Dewey and, later, Richard Nixon—where his main rival during the 1970s was Bob Dole. Bush and Dole ran for the Republican nomination in 1980, but both lost to Ronald Reagan, who represented the conservative wing of the party. What is especially interesting is how, in Pitney’s telling, a combination of Reagan’s pragmatism and the adaptability of the establishment gave rise to what he calls “mainstream conservatism.”

The Horton issue boosted Bush and made Dukakis look cold, but it did lasting damage to the efforts of Republicans to woo African American voters.

Probably the greatest illustration of this phenomenon is that it was Bush, Reagan’s main rival for the Republican nomination in 1980, who became the champion of this new conservatism in 1988—over, say, a Pat Robertson or a Jack Kemp, both of whom were on the right wing (although in different ways) of the Reagan coalition. But it is not merely that Bush took control of the party, it is also that he evolved into Reaganism to adopt it. Pitney quotes the elder Bush describing his transformation on the issue of abortion. During one of the presidential debates, Bush admitted that, “yes, my position has evolved. And it’s continuing to evolve in favor of life.” He astutely notes that it was his son—George W. Bush—who helped him communicate with the kinds of evangelical voters that his father, a mainline Protestant, did not personally relate to. Pitney also points out how Bush changed on the tax issue—from decrying Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo” in 1980 to promising “no new taxes” in 1988.

But what was the cost of this “mainstreaming” of conservatism? Pitney does not ask this explicitly, but the query becomes unavoidable in his narrative of Bush’s general election campaign, as well as his brief overview of the Bush presidency. The 1988 Republican message was mainly about thematics rather than specifics. Likewise, Pitney notes that as president, Bush was supremely well organized, but lacked a general vision of what his policy agenda was supposed to implement. And of course, Bush broke his most prominent campaign pledge—no new taxes—to forge a compromise over the budget deficit. So, all in all, Bush comes across as not especially committed to any policy positions. This has long been considered the knock on the senior Bush, but it is interesting to note that many of the main players in the George W. Bush presidency—Andy Card, Karl Rove, and of course Dick Cheney—were involved in the George H.W. Bush campaign or administration. And could it not be said that the younger Bush had a similarly incoherent domestic agenda, simultaneously cutting taxes while expanding social welfare, and praising local community groups while increasing the federal presence in education? Perhaps the issue is not so much the elder Bush himself, but rather Bush as an avatar for “mainstream conservatism,” which never had the intellectual coherence its advocates would like to think.

The second point of contemporary relevance is the prevalence of race and crime as issues in the 1988 campaign. Crime had been on an upswing over the previous 20 years, which worked against Dukakis, who placed more emphasis on civil liberties as a governor. Bush and his team effectively exploited Dukakis’s weakness with the “Willie Horton ad.” Horton was a convicted murderer in Massachusetts on a life-without-parole sentence. He had been temporarily released on a weekend furlough when he raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé. Dukakis, who had supported the furlough program in Massachusetts, came under enormous heat for this, including an ad by an outside group that emphasized the fact that Horton was African American. The Horton issue, Pitney notes, boosted Bush and made Dukakis look cold, but it did lasting damage to the efforts of Republicans to woo African American voters. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton learned from Dukakis’s mistakes and came out tough on crime without alienating African Americans. This new bipartisan consensus had the effect of lowering crime rates during the 1990s, but facilitated the civil rights issues now surrounding African Americans and police departments. It is interesting to read about the events of 1988 in light of current events.

Everybody, from scholars to general-interest readers, should always keep an eye out for the latest offerings from the University Press of Kansas, especially its excellent series on presidential elections. They are invariably good reads, and Pitney’s superb book on the election of 1988 is no exception. He is to be commended for offering us a solid, engaging work that simultaneously clarifies the history of politics up to that point, while also identifying developments that would unfold over the coming decades.