Hey, Politico: Tanks For The Dukakis ’88 Memories

From our Late to the Losing Party desk

Politico took a trip down Memory Lane the other day in this Josh King confessional piece from the new Politico Magazine.

Dukakis and the Tank

The inside story of the worst campaign photo op ever.

Fashion Consistent Candidates

Matt Bennett can still hear the reporters laughing, all 90 of them. He can still picture Sam Donaldson doubled over, guffawing, on a riser that looked out over a dusty field in suburban Detroit. Bennett was a 23-year-old political rookie in 1988 when he was sent to a General Dynamics facility in Sterling Heights, Mich., to organize a campaign stop for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis: a ride in a 68-ton M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. The visit, meant to bolster the candidate’s credibility as a future commander-in-chief, would go down as one of the worst campaign backfires in history.

Following the event, after the reporters’ laughter subsided and Dukakis’s entourage was preparing to leave, one of the candidate’s traveling aides approached Bennett. “Nice event, Matt” he deadpanned. “It may have cost us the election. But beside that, it was great.”

King’s piece tries to answer the question “Why had an event that everyone now agrees was such a terrible idea ever happened in the first place?”

It makes for a fascinating read, but the Duke-in-a-tank moment was not the only reason the Massachusetts governor blew a 17-point lead coming out of the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

There was also the relentlessly ad hoc nature of the Dukakis campaign overall – especially its advertising.

The hardsearching staff has been trying to find a link to Ed McCabe’s 1988 New York magazine piece, The Campaign You Never Saw – a devastating takedown of the Dukakis sputtering message machine that produced dozens of ads (one memorable one had a quail  – Dan Quayle, get it? – hopping around on a hot fry pan) that never made air. It was a high-priced version of Musical Ads, a scramble that cost the Dukakis campaign dearly.

At least we have the New York cover:


So, in the end, it wasn’t just the tank that tanked the Dukakis campaign.

It was the whole ting.

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9 Responses to Hey, Politico: Tanks For The Dukakis ’88 Memories

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    I always thought Dukakis got more guff for that than it deserved. But then, as you note, John, Dukakis’ campaign suffered from a lot of wounds, many of which were self-inflicted.

    The answer to the rape question comes to mind as one sterling example.

    He also got hammered with the Williy Horton ad. Not a devastating as the Daisy commercial, but it certainly get people to pause and think about what Dukakis stood for.

    Dukakis’ loss was staggering, but I wonder if George McGovern’s was actually worse.

  2. Ultimately what kills candidates — Dukakis, Gore, Romney — is the lack of common touch.

    In some cases it’s viscerally discernible (the quick way) and in others it manifests itself in horrible campaign ideas (the slow way.)

  3. Pingback: Tanks For The Memories (Dukakis ’88 Part Two) | Campaign Outsider

  4. In retrospect, Biden’s family came to believe that the early end to his presidential campaign had been a blessing in disguise, for had he still been campaigning in the midst of the primaries in early 1988, he might well have not have stopped to seek medical attention and the condition might have become unsurvivable.

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