These are a lot more spirited and fun to watch then those of the previous 3 cycles, or 1996, all of which were often brutal to slog through.
How times change. Literally the first question is about drugs, and Bush talks about the idea of legalizing weed as some unimaginable corruption of values. The ’80s and ’90s were certainly a dark time in terms of social issues. You see it in all the debates from these decades, with a huge focus on being “tough on crime” and “stopping drugs.” Yet at the same time, it’s interesting how things stay the same. In this video you hear what I believe is the first reference to “the 1%” in a national debate, specifically with reference to the tax cuts still strangling us today. You also see the healthcare issue brought up, and Dukakis calling Bush out on his non-answer to that. There’s the first big emphasis on Terrorists, with Dukakis hammering Bush on Iran Contra and saying “You don’t negotiate with terrorists. Ever.”
There’s a moment of levity where the moderators cut Bush off when he still has some time left, and they exchange jokes while the audience laughs. Bush gets some big laughs and audience response elsewhere too, which surprised me considering how awkward he was in his convention speeches. Another big moment comes when the mods challenge Bush’s VP decision “what do you see in him (Dan Quayle) that we do not?” to another riotous chuckle from the audience. Bush’s defense of Quayle is impassioned, but completely misguided considering what a joke Dan turned out to be. Bush even says he’ll do great in the VP debate when we now know with hindsight that Quayle made an unprecedented fool of himself. (The most famous zinger in all US political history, “Senator you’re no Jack Kennedy” was directed at him.)
Now, focusing on Dukakis, this is also the beginning of the Democrats letting the Republicans dominate the conversation in the debates. It’s the start of being the “me too!” Conservative-Lite party rather than standing for their own set of values. This is partially because their own winning coalition from 1932 to 1968 had long since collapsed. That said, Dukakis is at least a small step up from Carter and Mondale. He’s less awkward, still a bit stiff but actually tolerable to listen to. Dukakis is a lot more animated and aggressive at times attacking Bush, where Mondale and Carter were Reagan’s pawns to play with from start to finish. Still, Dukakis couldn’t win against Bush, who was himself one of the Republicans’ weakest, least exciting candidates, which says a lot about how impotent the Democrats still were even at their best in the ’80s. Like the Republicans, they needed a truly charismatic guy to break through and redefine their party, and Dukakis just didn’t quite cut it.
I think, listening to Dukakis criticize Bush on war spending, he lost mostly by trying to be something he wasn’t: that being, the wannabe big strong war leader. The most famous moment of this election was the video of Dukakis riding around in a tank trying to look like a tough commander in chief but coming off like a goofball. He would have been a lot better off just being himself. Bush even references “hitch a ride on his tank” at the end of the debate, to yet another round of laughter, which just shows how damaging a gaffe it was. It’s something of a clumsy turn of phrase on Bush’s part, but it does exactly what it needed to do and reminded people of that humiliating photo-op. Part of politics is, inevitably, lying and putting on a show. But your core values and persona ought to be genuine or stem from something genuine.