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Will Obama Run Like Bill Clinton... or Michael Dukakis?

Maybe it was the arugula. Political eons ago, last July, no one thought much of it when Barack Obama inquired in Iowa, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.” But ten months later Republicans are buzzing about arugula. Why?

Arugula conjured up memories of another gourmet green: Belgian endives. Michael Dukakis asked for some of those in Iowa in 1988. That was the first hint that Democrats and the rest of Americans got that he was out of touch with average voters.

And this possibility, that the near-nominee of the Democratic Party in 2008 could be another Dukakis, has many Republicans excited.

The 1988 election is, of course, one which Republicans would love to replay. On one side was the standard bearer of the Republican Party which had been roughed up by the Iran Contra scandal. On the other was an urban reformer who rarely got ruffled and never angry. The election did not turn much on Reaganomics, the end of the Cold War or other major policy issues, but instead devolved into one of the fiercest episodes in the culture wars. We heard a lot that year about Willie Horton and Dukakis’ membership in the ACLU. George H.W. Bush came from 17 points down to win handily.

Well that sounds just fine to some John McCain supporters. They, after all, have been handed a basket of issues from Reverend Wright to Bill Ayers to Obama’s own condescending remarks about rural Pennsylvanians.

It doesn’t take much creativity to make the argument (and the accompanying TV ads) that Obama is an extreme liberal, out of touch with mainstream values and lacking an appreciation for qualities which make America exceptional. His wife’s derogatory remarks that America has been a “mean” country and her complaints about the horrible burden of paying off Ivy League university student loans has only fed into the argument that her husband is an liberal elitist. If the election could be about all of that, some conservatives muse, McCain might do just fine.

There is even some polling information to support this approach. Nearly half of the voters in Indiana and North Carolina, Democratic primary voters that is, considered the Reverend Wright controversy very or somewhat important. Among those Hillary Clinton won 70% in Indiana and 60% in North Carolina, according to exit polls.

But McCain may not be so lucky as to replay the 1988 election. There is another election the Democrats have in mind, ironically one involving the Clintons. In 1992, an incumbent President George H.W. Bush faced an untested, untried charismatic leader of a new generation. In the midst of an economic recession which was nearly over before it began, Bill Clinton convinced the voters that Bush was the one out of touch, unsympathetic to the concerns of working Americans and bereft of ideas. That was not the Belgian endive election but the year with the supermarket scanner and the shot of Bush checking his watch during a presidential debate. Time was indeed up; Clinton sailed into the White House.

Those are, it seems, two potential paradigms for 2008. But despite the high hopes of many conservatives, 1988 may not be the model for this election. In the midst of an economic recession, a housing crisis and a still unfinished war in Iraq some conservatives rightfully are nervous that the public will not be satisfied, some would say distracted, by another round of the culture wars circa 1988. The public is massively unhappy with the direction of the country. An astonishing 81% of voters according to the April 4 New York Times/CBS poll believe we are on the “wrong track.” If voters perceive that there are huge issues which confront us (economic recovery, terrorism, health care, energy policy, and the future of the Supreme Court, to name a few) it seems a risky tactic for McCain to make this election about small bore issues.

And then, of course, 2008 is just not a good year to be a Republican. David Brooks warns: “Traditional Republicans can beat liberal Democrats when the Republican brand is in healthy shape. That is not the case now.” It is hard to argue with that.

Is this inevitably then a losing year for McCain, another 1992 in the offing? Perhaps not. It is important to recall that Clinton won in 1992 offering a “third way” – a new reform agenda, which seemed moderate and sensible to many independents and infuriated the far Left in his own party.

But wait. That doesn’t sound much like Obama agenda which offers retreat in Iraq, cozy relations with dictators, massive federal intervention in health care, tax increases even in a recession, a large helping of protectionism and judges committed to imposing their own brand of “social justice.”

An argument McCain would be wise to make is that the problem with Obama is not just that he is outside the cultural mainstream, but that his ideas are.

Democrats may be right that this year’s election looks more like 1992 than 1988. But McCain would be smart to respond that he, not Obama, is the harbinger of a new era of reform and the alternative to the failed liberal policies of the past. With a long track record of maverick bipartisanship (on everything from the environment to immigration and Defense Department reform) and Teddy Roosevelt as his model McCain might credibly make just such an appeal.

So if Democrats insist this election is like 1992, McCain could be the Bill Clinton this time. Without all the baggage of course.

Jennifer Rubin is a writer living in Virginia. She is a regular contributor to Human Events, American Spectator and the New York Observer and blogs at Commentary’s Contentions.