This article originally appeared in the November 15, 1991 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
How can a Democrat beat George Bush in 1992? "Get more votes," suggests one analyst sarcastically. And he’s not the only cynic.
Partisan Democrats are smiling a bit these days following Harris Wofford’s heavily analyzed Pennsylvania Senate win over Bush surrogate Richard Thornburgh. Some of them are even flashing their teeth because of recent polls that show Bush’s popularity slumping. But most of the pollsters, pundits, and political observers we talked with had to be coaxed just to speculate on a Democratic-victory scenario. "Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a cross-section of America," notes John Brennan, director of polling for the Los Angeles Times.
It’s not hard to see why a Democratic win seems pure fantasy. Bush’s personal popularity remains high despite all his problems, which run from S&L culpability, to domestic-agenda inertia, to economic malaise. Even the most optimistic Democrats understood the economy must dramatically worsen if that popularity is to implode. And even if it does, none of the no-names in the Democratic field has yet demonstrated the capacity to exploit such erosion.
"No one can beat George Bush," says Atlanta-based political consultant Claibourne Darden. "Except George Bush."
Maybe. But though the conditions for an upset are probably beyond the Democrats’ control, we think there’s a plausible way for them at least to be in a position to steal the presidency.
It won’t be easy. The Democratic candidate will need to abandon attitudes and political reflexes that have become institutionalized within the party. At times, the candidate may have to repudiate the party. The Democratic nominee’s campaign will be a high-stakes roll of the dice, heavy on symbolism and positioning, short on political comfort. Doctrinaire liberals will like this campaign about as much as conservatives will like the prospect of a Democratic presidency.
Aspects of our blueprint may seem to favor certain current candidates at the expense of others, but that’s not the point. The following is a pragmatic state-by-state plan for gathering the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Hard-core Republican states are ignored here – it’ll be tough enough to upset the conventional wisdom in states that went for Bush in 1988 but now seem within the grasp of a risk-taking Democrat. In the final analysis, our plan would offer the candidate’s bold redefinition of the Democratic Party as a metaphor for the open-minded, balls-out political leadership voters seems to be yearning for. If this shoes fits, any Democrat is free to wear it. The party has nothing to lose but another near-certain defeat.
Win Votes On Choice
Michael Dukakis never made abortion rights a big issue in 1988, but in our scenario, it’s a must. As Bush demonstrated with his fumbling 1988 debate statement on criminal penalties for women who have abortions, his opposition to choice is more pandering than principle, and one of his weakest issues.
Wofford won Pennsylvania in part by sweeping suburban communities that almost never vote Democratic. Choice was a key factor. Wofford, who backs parental-consent laws and other restrictions on abortion rights, nonetheless supports retaining the Roe v. Wade standard. Thornburgh favors the overturning of Roe, and spent his last days as US attorney general voicing support for the ugly anti-choice demonstrations in Wichita, Kansas. Exit polling showed women who were Republican, liberal to moderate, and college-educated – a key suburban swing vote known to demography junkies as “Sorority Sisters” – did not appreciate Thornburgh’s connection to Wichita. And Thornburgh’s status as a former Pennsylvania governor cemented Wofford’s image as the outsider.