But take a lesson from Schwarzkopf’s charm, too. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Ray Flynn, after listening to Senator John Kerry denounce the “moral darkness” of the Reagan years, noted the potential for backlash created by such attacks. “My mother would always get upset when people would get personal with the president,” said Flynn. “And I don’t like it either.” A little-noticed but key moment during the Bush-Dukakis debates occurred when the candidates were asked to say what they admired about the other. Bush praised Dukakis’ family values and immigrant background; Dukakis couldn’t think of anything to say about Bush.
Old-fashioned populist attacks, such as Harkin’s excoriation of “George Herbert Hoover Bush,” may amuse the hard-core party faithful. But as Almanac of American Politics author Michael Barone notes, “Hoover’s not even a vacuum cleaner to most Americans. The public may see Bush as out of touch, but they don’t hate him because he’s an aristocrat.”
And voters don’t appreciate personal pettiness, particularly when it comes from a party already suspected of subscribing to unpopular social values. There’s plenty in Bush’s record for a Democrat to trash, but even as his performance rating falls, the polls show voters still like Bush as a person. They might come to like a Democrat better, but not if he plays the disgruntled ass.
Express Popular Values
Public policy is a nice cocktail party topic, but it has little to do with winning the presidency. Congress was once the place where the great moral issues of the days were thrashed out, while the president was looked to for economic leadership. But as Congress has become more an administrative than a legislative body, the roles have been reversed. Congress is now the place where the policy beef is prepared; voters hate the smell of the slaughterhouse, but love the incumbent congressman who brings their fair share home.
And the presidential election is now the forum in which cultural and social issues are debated. To have a chance of winning, the Democrats need a candidate who can express a set of values that is at least competitive with Bush’s.
That doesn’t mean the Democrat has to have a likeable wife or be photographed romping in the living room with the grandchildren (although it wouldn’t hurt). The candidate’s values can be conveyed through campaign positions – a pro-choice posture as a commitment to individual rights, for example, or a streak of independence exemplified by the abandonment of party dogma.
In 1976, Carter, a born-again Christian and an outsider with both an advanced academic degree and a common man’s sensibilities, expressed popular values in an era when the GOP’s values were suspect. In 1992, by playing to the electorate’s desire for an independent, born-again reformer with fundamentally moderate instincts, the Democratic candidate might disappoint those who wan Bush’s head on a platter. But with Jesse Jackson out of the race and with Republicans worried about their own problems with extremism (thanks to the Wichita protestors and David Duke), this is the year to nominate vanilla. Doing so helps create a comfort level among skeptical swing voters who, depending on the economy, might want to chop off Bush’s head themselves, but who won’t pick up the ax unless they believe the Democrat is an acceptable alternative.