This begins with one of the most important examples of “appearances matter!” in all politics. The most infamous moment from these debates is the first question here, where out of nowhere Bernard Shaw asks Dukakis if he’d support the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered. This is probably the worst, most unfair “gotcha!” question ever asked in one of these debates and in my personal opinion Bernard should have been forced to resign for pulling a tasteless stunt like that. Dukakis, unfazed, goes on to answer about how he’s always been against the death penalty and gives some facts and figures to support his answer. Technically, he did everything “right” by sticking to his guns even if it was personal case–typically we look down on those who dictate values to others they wouldn’t hold for themselves. Yet, this answer also helped sink Dukakis’ campaign anyway because of the appearance of it. By answering in an unemotional, robotic series of prepared talking points, it came across like he didn’t care or wasn’t affected by his wife’s (hypothetical) death. It isn’t fair, but that’s how it was interpreted. For the millionth time, appearances are everything in politics. The fact that the ’80s and ’90s were such a repressive “tough on crime!”/”say no to drugs!” era didn’t help either. The Bush campaign played a lot of ads about how Dukakis was soft on crime which damaged him and this answer played into that perception.
In this day and age, a Dukakis answer to a question like that probably wouldn’t be quite so damaging, since we’re a lot less “tough on crime” and the death penalty is less popular. But at the same time I think an over the top emotional response similar to Trump’s tactics at the primary debates could have worked too. In fact, if this happened today, I think if Dukakis went off on Bernard Shaw for asking such an unprofessional and obviously bad-faith question it might have flipped the script so to speak and been seen as a win. It might have forced Shaw to then defend himself to the audience for essentially ruining the debate, and the next day on TV, while Dukakis would look tough and above petty bullshit questions like that. Sometimes thinking outside the box can change everything in these scenarios.
As for 1988 though, Dukakis probably would have been best served saying something like “Well, I’d certainly love to kill the bastard myself, but in America we are a land of laws and due process,” and then launch into a spiel about the importance of upholding the Bill of Rights, in this case the 8th, even when it’s hard. He could then pivot to talking about upholding the 4th even though it makes it harder to catch criminals. I think patriotic love of the Constitution trumps even the stupid macho “tough on crime” attitude and also might have flipped the script that night, albeit less dramatically. It’s really easy though for me to say all of this in hindsight; if I were in his shoes I’d have probably done the same thing. (Though, I’d like to think I’d have commented on what a ridiculous question it was first at least.) It’s really sad to think your campaign could be derailed or at least seriously injured by some asinine moment like this, which you have no control over.
Normally, when it comes to making campaign moves you have time to consider the optics of your actions and how you should respond to events. However, the debate stage is (or was, when it was still professional) the one place where you shouldn’t have to worry about that, at least not as much, and the focus is on answering the questions truthfully and substantially, as well as exposing your opponent when their answers don’t make sense or contradict a previous statement they’ve made. You shouldn’t have to worry about putting on a big show of emotion or considering vastly different theatrics in response as I’ve done here. Dukakis was in debate-mode and wasn’t thinking in terms of “how do I flip the script” so much as “how do I answer the question to best defend my position on the death penalty.” Had he stalled for even 10 or 15 seconds to consider his options, he’d look like he had no answer to the question and wouldn’t have time to answer when he thought of something. It was just a really terrible situation all around.
Ultimately though, Bernard was way out of line–this might even be the single worst example of a moderator trying to play Kingmaker that I’ve ever seen. If he hasn’t apologized to Dukakis for this moment yet, I think he absolutely should have.
We get further confirmation of how ridiculous this second debate’s moderation is when Bernard asks Bush the same exact question about Dan Quayle as in the last debate. Once again, Bush gives an impassioned defense of him, and even gives a pretty good zinger “Never have I seen a Presidential campaign where a President runs against a running mate.” (Where was that level of wit and tact during his RNC speech?) Dukakis missed a golden opportunity in his response by not repeating the “well, he’s no Jack Kennedy” or something to that effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still shell shocked from the first question though–having to open against something like that has to color your performance for the rest of the night.
It seems Dukakis fell into the same trap Mondale did, being brutally honest in saying that he may have to raise taxes while both Reagan and Bush made big songs and dances of how they would never do so (and then did it anyway.) Dukakis admits he can’t promise a balanced budget which is probably true, but not what people want to hear. Bush pushes for a balanced budget amendment in this debate but I’m personally against that for the reasons Dukakis brings up; you never know what might happen and sometimes the government has to run up at least some debt. Ironically, this is a lesson Bush would learn for himself during in his time in office. (I see some people try to frame his rescinding of the “no new taxes” pledge as some honorable sacrifice. It wasn’t; it was sweet karma for making such a ridiculous promise in the first place.)
It’s interesting how Bush is able to frame the Conservative mindset as “having faith in the people.” I disagree with the Conservative ideology but that was a great way to phrase it to win people to his side. Dukakis (and other, future liberals) would do well to frame Liberalism the same way, and say something like “what is government but a means by which people coordinate their resources in order to better carry out responses?” or “Liberalism is valuing people over profit” or words to that effect. Then challenge Bush (or whoever) how to better society if not government. What does government exist for if not to empower the people? Instead, Dukakis waffles with the clunker “I don’t believe these labels matter” which seems like a weak, unhelpful answer to me. It comes off like deflection and running away from the liberal title and ethos, which is exactly what the Democrats were doing at this time by adopting right-wing rhetoric.
One moment which took me out of the debate was when the audience applauded right as Bush was about to answer and he says to the mods, “Can we start over? I waited for the applause.” when it only took like 2 or 3 seconds for them to quiet down. Very petty look, but this raises a big issue I have with these debates, the matter of time. I think the 2 minute, 1 minute, 30 second windows to discuss complex policy ideals is ridiculous. Since more modern election cycles have three debates, maybe one can be done in this format. But for the other two, I’d like to see them set up in the way that college hosted political debates often are. That being 15 or 20 minutes apiece to answer questions and put your ideas out there. Or even the Lincoln Douglas debate format of 1 hour opening statement from one guy, the other person talks for 90 minutes, then the first guy gets a 30 minute rebuttal/closing statement. One of each format would be amazing. But just sticking to these 30 second answers is part of what has created the “soundbite culture” and ADD “can’t pay attention to anything for more than 5 minutes” electorate. It’s not healthy for a democracy which relies of informed, intelligent voters.
An interesting question asked is “who are the larger than life heroes you see in America today?” In one sense this is kinda irrelevant, but on the other hand I get it. Seeing who someone looks up to is a good indicator of what kind of a person they really are. Unfortunately, neither gives the moderator the illuminating answer I think she wanted. Dukakis lists his fellow Governors and Olympic athletes, scientists and doctors, in particular Jonas Sulk, teachers, clergy and law enforcement. A very “blah” response, very expected, unoriginal, trying to please everyone by listing as many general careers as possible. Now, if Dukakis wanted to go for the “everyone’s a hero” route, I think he should have done it differently. Said “every mom and dad is the larger than life hero to their kids, whom those kids will emulate growing up, and who will inspire them to succeed. Teachers as well, are with students most of the day and play a big part in shaping their world. That’s why its so important to me to empower all families with a strong safety net and education reform, so that every kid out there has a hero with the resources to empower our future generations to become the heroes of the future.” or something like that. Alternatively, I think he ought to have picked one specific person, preferably someone few would think of, (so NOT George Washington or something cheap like that) and talk about that person at length. If you asked me who my heroes were, I’d probably say George McGovern, Brian Wilson, and Princess Diana. I could talk at length about any of them: what they mean to me, why I think they’re good role models for others to look up to, etc. Dukakis might well have tried that, rather than his lame non-answer. Bush lists a very specific teacher, Astronauts and athletes, some specific Doctor who did something with AIDS and then says (to a round of applause) the current President, Reagan. Pretty much just copying Dukakis’ unimaginative response with a little Republican pandering for good measure.
It’s interesting in the next question, when asked for a nice thing to say about Dukakis, Bush references Dukakis talking about his family in that speech. A moment that I personally thought was forced and cheesy.