The incumbent is weakened by a sagging economy. The party out of power has a Massachusetts governor as the likely nominee. But a religious politician is eroding the natural base for the front-runner. And an upstart Southerner is lobbing accusations at the Massachusetts governor about his "liberal" record. This will eventually undo the nominee in the general election. The year is 1988.
The Democrats were up against a weak Vice President George Bush (in the days when you didn’t need to add the “H” and the “W”). Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, emerged as the front-runner, though a weak one. Rev. Jesse Jackson was running a campaign designed to make sure African-Americans’ interests would be represented in the party platform. Like Ron Paul today, the media never believed Jackson could seriously win the nomination. The Senator from Tennessee, Al Gore, was the centrist that raised Dukakis’ prison furlough program during a Democratic debate, and was later used to devastating effect by Republicans in the general election.
OK, so the parallels are not exact. But there is an obvious cautionary tale for Republicans. Dukakis and the Democrats could not win after such a bruising Primary battle. This was a standard hazard for Democrats. Will Rogers once famously said, “I am not a member of an organized party. I’m a Democrat.” Democrats had too many factions, too many divisions, too many regional differences, and no clear mission.
The Republicans have always had divisions, but pretty boring ones, the Northeastern Rockefeller wing versus the Western Goldwater Libertarians, for example (not nearly as hip as the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry). Eventually, Reagan/Bush would reunite the party.
Reagan’s 11th Commandment was "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
This makes for boring Republican primaries. Until now! This time the Republican contest is exciting. Gingrich and Perry want to tie Bain Capital Kryptonite around Super Romney’s neck. Santorum is saying that Romney shouldn’t be criticized for being a successful capitalist; he should be criticized for being an inauthentic conservative. Ron Paul is criticizing Romney for not being an adherent to Austrian Economic theory. OK, maybe not as exciting, but on Republican terms this has been fiery!
Many people don’t remember that in 1988, after Michael Dukakis won the New Hampshire Primary, Jesse Jackson won South Carolina, eight other states and the District of Columbia. Al Gore won seven states. Dick Gephardt, three states. While Mitt Romney is off to an impressive two state running start in the past two weeks, next Saturday’s South Carolina Primary is competitive. Like last week, he will probably win. But somewhere, Ronald Reagan is muttering, “Shut up, Newt.”