Boston Globe: Going negative: pathetic, but it works

Boston Globe

Going negative: pathetic, but it works

There were practical reasons for Bush’s strategy in 1988. He faced a choice: He could run for Ronald Reagan’s third term, but Reagan’s popularity sagged deeply at the end of his second term amid Iran-Contra and other scandals. Or Bush could strike a more independent pose, which would be difficult to pull off and would likely cost him Reagan’s conservative base. Both choices looked like losers. The answer: make Dukakis unelectable.

Since Dukakis had served eight years in the Massachusetts House and nearly 10 as governor, there were plenty of votes and policies to mine. And with Lee Atwater at the throttle, the Bush campaign poured it on. There were the visits to the flag factory. Promotion of the Willie Horton ad, with darkly threatening images of the black man who jumped furlough in Massachusetts and committed rape in Maryland. The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the New Orleans convention. Many saw racist overtones and a none-too subtle nativist streak – is the guy with the funny name really “one of us?”

Atwater promised at the time to “strip the bark off the little bastard,” and to “make Willie Horton his running mate.” Dying of brain cancer three years later, Atwater apologized publicly for both comments.

Rough as it was, the 1988 campaign looks tame compared with those now mounted by Atwater’s protégés, both real, in the person of Karl Rove, and ideological.

Even McCain’s longtime theme of “country first” carries an intimation that Obama – another guy with a funny name, not to mention dark skin – is not American enough, a point he tried to cement when he suggested that Obama would choose to lose a war if it won him an election.

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