In ’88, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was leading the Democratic White House hopefuls. On April 12, he debated his remaining Democratic rivals in Manhattan. One of them, Sen. Al Gore, mentioned the Massachusetts prison furlough plan that Dukakis had defended. Under that particular program, criminals – even murderers sentenced to life in prison without parole – had been granted, Gore noted critically, “weekend passes.” But Dukakis dismissed Gore: “Al, the difference between you and me is that I have run a criminal justice system. You haven’t.”
In that same spring of 1988, Dukakis was also beating the Republicans, forging ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush by 17 points in the polls. Of course Dukakis was ahead; after eight years of Republicans in the White House, voters couldn’t be blamed for thinking “time for a change.”But Dukakis wasn’t destined to be the change that voters were looking for. He had been fatally wounded, politically, by Gore, back in April; he just didn’t know it. That seemingly little issue of the weekend passes for first-degree murderers just wasn’t going to go away.
Now fast-forward to 2007. I’m long out of partisan campaign politics, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reminds me a lot of Dukakis. As he was two decades ago, she’s from a big state, has a lot of money, is ahead in the polls – and she’s been grievously injured. This time, the issue isn’t prison furloughs, but driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants in her “home” state of New York. Clinton has broadly defended Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s unpopular plan, even as most New Yorkers have reviled it.
During the Philadelphia debate of Democratic hopefuls on Oct. 30, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, aiming from way back in the Democratic pack, took a stab at Clinton. Her position was “troublesome,” he said, adding, “I think the American people are reacting to it.”
Yes, they are, but not inside the “nominating wing” of the Democratic Party, which doesn’t worry about illegal immigration. So just as Gore failed to get anywhere in criticizing Dukakis 20 years ago, Dodd is not destined to get any lift from his Clinton criticism.
But the country, of course, is bigger than a few lefty-dominated presidential primaries and caucuses. If Spitzer can’t sell his licenses-for-illegals plan to New Yorkers in 2007, how can Clinton hope to defend that plan to Americans in 2008?
Pinkerton worked in opposition research for Bush 41, so he knows what he’s talking about regarding the 1988 campaign. Others must also be aware of the parallels, specifically people in the Clinton campaign. Could their realization of the trouble she’s now in be the reason for the seemingly nonsensical reaction to the debate gaffe?
The day after the debate I put up a post about the coordinated “Politics of Pile On” campaign that began almost immediately afterward. Later I speculated elsewhere that perhaps she had originally planned to use it in the general election debates but brought it out now because the issue being raised, and her inept handling of it, caught her off guard.
On Friday there were articles in the press expressing disappointment and bewilderment over the tactic of portraying Clinton as being set upon by mean old men. Barack Obama seemed to take advantage of her playing “the gender card.” On the same day, E.J. Dionne had an op-ed in The Washington Post titled The Issue the Democrats Dread:
More significant than Hillary Clinton’s supposed gaffe at the end of Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate is the subject around which she tiptoed so delicately: immigration. Democrats fear the issue because it could leave them with a set of no-win political choices.
The issue is especially problematic because efforts to appease voters upset about immigration — including a share of the African American community — threaten to undercut the Democrats’ large and growing advantage among Latino voters. For Republicans, the issue is both a way of changing the political subject from Iraq, the economy and the failures of the Bush presidency and a means of sowing discord in the Democratic coalition.
One poll finding this week that shook Democrats came in a survey conducted by Democracy Corps, a consortium organized by party consultants Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan and James Carville. It asked voters to pick two from a list of seven problems that explain “why the country is going in the wrong direction.”
The survey found that among independent voters, 40 percent — by far the largest group — picked this option: “Our borders have been left unprotected and illegal immigration is growing.”
By contrast, a lack of action on health care was named by only 24 percent of independents as a core problem, and Iraq by 23 percent.
Very curious, indeed.
On Monday I noticed a few left-wing bloggers commenting on the controversy of issuing driver’s licenses to illegals. The posts seemed strange because they were trying to play it down by comparing it to illegals opening bank accounts or buying a cup of coffee. One expressed disinterest in the issue, wondering what the big deal is, while at the same time displaying ignorance of it. Granted, these are simply bloggers, but they aren’t political dummies. Are they picking up on the same parallels that Pinkerton notes?
Adding to the strangeness were the comments of Bill Clinton I mentioned in my previous post. Will it be suggested from now on that any questions about immigration policy, and Hillary’s weakness on the issue, amount to “swift-boating?” If so it will highlight another similarity with the 1988 race. After the famous Willie Horton spot came out and appeared to be doing real damage to the Dukakis campaign, the defense from the Democrats was a chorus decrying the Republicans playing “the race card”, supposedly taking advantage of fear of black people in general among whites. To this day hardcore lefties bring up that ad campaign as an example of alleged Republican pandering to racist fears.
It will be interesting to watch in the coming months to see if they continue down this road with the campaign. One thing is certain; Republicans have noticed the weak spot. As Pinkerton notes at the end of his article:
So once again, Republicans are sniffing political blood.
h/t Gabriel Malor at Ace of Spades