Massachusetts was, in fact, the only state that allowed prisoners serving sentences of life without parole the opportunity to go out on furloughs. And, worse, Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have reversed this practice. (The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize showcasing the program.) Dukakis could have spent the whole campaign responding and it wouldn’t have done a bit of good unless his response had been, “I made a mistake and I won’t make it again.”
Better safe and sorry
So, what are the lessons for Obama from the Bush-bested Democrats? First, from the Kerry experience, avoid glamorizing your past or making categorical assertions or denials about it. (Obama’s claim that Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory declarations were “not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity” is just such an assertion.) No matter what Obama thinks happened in the past, there were other people there at the time who might have a different version of events that will contradict his.
Second, apologize when necessary — it goes a long way. Politicians as varied as Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick) have used apologies to rescue their political careers. The key, as they demonstrated, is to apologize in the politically savviest way — namely by pleading guilty to a lesser offense and showing contrition for that.
It has been a regrettable trait of the Obama campaign so far (which is reminiscent of the Dukakis reaction to Willie Horton) that it can seemingly never admit when its candidate makes a mistake. An old questionnaire that contradicts a policy stand? Oh, an aide must have done it for him (even though one copy apparently featured Obama's handwritten notes added to an answer). Reverend Wright gives outrageous sermons? Obama must have never been in church to hear them.
The problem with the answers in these cases is that they leave the door open to more factual disputes that keep the story alive and slowly damage the candidate’s credibility. If Obama would just apologize and show a tad more humility from time to time, the Republicans would have fewer easy targets to hit, and the rest of us could all move on.
Willie Horton and Swift-boating have become talismanic words for the Democrats — symbols of how elections can be lost by dirty tricks and not fighting back. That’s the wrong lesson. Kerry made a bad strategic choice, Dukakis a bad policy one, and neither was really defensible. The voters are a forgiving lot: occasionally admitting mistakes can go a long way.
BARACK OBAMA VS. JOHN MCCAIN
Odds: even | this past week: even
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