||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: Party like it's 1988
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A year ago, top Bush strategist Karl Rove was telling anyone and everyone that this campaign was a lot like 1896; a country coming to grips with a new economy -- industrialized and centralized -- choosing between a candidate looking to a fading past (William Jennings Bryan then, Vice President Al Gore now) and one embracing the new reality (William McKinley then, Texas Gov. George W. Bush now).
Whether he was right or wrong, he was demonstrating an impulse that is embedded into the DNA code of almost every political player and observer I know: the desire to figure out what other campaign year the current one is like. All through the insurgency of Arizona Sen. John McCain, for example, people like me wondered whether this would turn out to be a year like 1976 or 1980, when the challengers to the front-runners -- Ronald Reagan to Gerald Ford, then Ted Kennedy to Jimmy Carter -- pressed their case all the way to the convention.
Now that this analogy-cum-hunger has faded, it's time to offer a new candidate: 1988.
I don't mean to focus on the obvious parallels, because...well, because they're obvious. A sitting vice president, deemed less charismatic in contrast to the incumbent president, faces a governor from an electorally significant state who argues that his record proves his capacity to lead the nation to the next stage, with an electorate torn between general satisfaction and the desire for change.
For me, the potential parallel -- and the key challenge facing Governor Bush -- is how the vice-president's campaign dealt with the gubernatorial challenger. In essence, the campaign of Vice President George Bush managed to paint Gov. Michael Dukakis as a figure out of touch with mainstream America, whose record as governor was fatally flawed.
There were three elements to this attack: first, Dukakis' refusal to compel pubic school teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout the fall campaign, Bush visited so many flag factories that he almost literally wrapped himself in Old Glory, to claim the patriotism issue.
Second, he painted Dukakis -- whom he (accurately) called "a card-carrying member of the ACLU" -- as soft on crime, using as his cudgel Dukakis' support for a prisoner-furlough program. In so doing, the campaign made Willie Horton the most famous fleeing felon in history.
Third, the Bush campaign pointed to the polluted waters of Boston Harbor as proof that Dukakis was a poor governor. Indeed, one of Bush's first post-convention campaign swings was at the head of an armada sailing into the harbor.
This year, the Gore campaign has already indicated it plans the same mode of attack. The elements?
-- First, Bush's position on abortion, and specifically, the Republican platform plank that implicitly would forbid abortion under any and all circumstances.
-- Second, Bush's support for the Texas concealed weapons law, which the Gore campaign sees as a wedge issue right into the women's vote.
-- Third, the fact that Houston has now surpassed Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in America.
Those issues, Gore is already arguing, prove that Bush is out of touch with mainstream America, and that Bush's record as governor -- at least on the environment -- makes him dangerous as a potential president.
With seven and a half months until Election Day, this is at best an early portrait of the political terrain. And the parallels aren't perfect; for instance, do not expect Gore to parachute into the Houston atmosphere the way Bush the Elder sailed into Boston Harbor. But as an early working hypothesis, the question of whether Gore can do to Bush what Bush's father did to Dukakis provides a useful road map to what's ahead.