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Obama=Dukakis? By: David Frum
AEI.org | Friday, April 25, 2008

Two months ago, there seemed no way the Republicans could win the 2008 presidential election.

The polls were awful. Fundraising was hopeless. Twice as many people were voting in Democratic as in Republican primaries.

Today, these objective conditions remain as bad as ever--maybe worse. In March, the Republicans' presumptive nominee, John McCain, raised barely one-third as much as Democratic front-runner Barack Obama. Small donors in particular favor Senator Obama: the Democrat has raised $76 million in small donations over the campaign cycle; McCain, only $7.4 million.

George H. W. Bush defeated the Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis by convincing America that Dukakis was radically unacceptable: too left-wing, too weak, too out of touch with the values of ordinary voters.

The energy, turnout, and volunteering on the Democratic side all dwarf anything we see among Republicans.

And yet this month for the first time this year, Republicans are feeling twinges of optimism.

Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary has badly bruised both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama.

Hillary Clinton has always provoked strong dislike among her political opponents. Now for the first time her "negative" ratings are rising among Democrats as well.

Perceptions of Barack Obama are changing too. Senator Obama has presented himself as a candidate above ideology: a unifier offering racial reconciliation. Now voters are learning of his long history of involvement with America's radical left. First it was the revelations of his church pastor's incendiary anti-Americanism and African nationalism. Then it was his wife's comment that she had never felt pride in her country until this year. Now Americans are hearing that Obama early in his career had accepted the support of Bill Ayers, a member of the radical Weathernman group, still unrepentant for detonating bombs in the 1960s.

Obama's reaction? He said in a debate that he also was friendly with a very conservative member of the US Senate who has made some incendiary remarks of his own--meaning that Obama equated a conservative loudmouth with a leftist who had committed overt acts of domestic terrorism.

Very bad! Bad enough to send hope coursing through many Republicans.

And yet the objective facts of this election continue to be deeply inhospitable to the Republican party: 80% of Americans say the country is on the wrong track--and want a change from the policies of George Bush. Gasoline prices have reached excruciating heights, food prices are following, unemployment is trending up. And although the subprime mortgage crisis has not yet inflicted real distress, the crisis has generated a mood of anxiety that may be more damaging to an incumbent party than an actual recession--because it  leaves more to the imagination.

More ominously still, the battering of Sens. Clinton and Obama may invite Republicans to follow a dangerous strategy.

Back in 1988, the elder George H. W. Bush defeated the Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis by convincing America that Dukakis was radically unacceptable: too left-wing, too weak, too out of touch with the values of ordinary voters.

Challengers have often won elections by attacking incumbents. It is rare for incumbents to win elections by attacking challengers. Yet it worked--and in working, it left behind the idea that it might work again.

1988 is very much on the minds of Republican strategists today. John McCain has not yet articulated an attractive or coherent domestic policy platform. His main economic suggestion--a big reduction in America's cripplingly high corporate income tax--is worth enough, but not obviously relevant to middle-class voters. Meanwhile, the worries uppermost in voter minds--the gathering recession, rising prices, healthcare--go unattended by his candidacy.

So, the thought is spreading--can McCain win by doing to Obama what George H. W. Bush did to Michael Dukakis? If so, then his lack of a domestic platform may not matter much. Who remembers George H. W. Bush's 1988 platform?

The trouble is, 2008 is not 1988. Then the economy was prospering. Today it is wobbling. Then the incumbent Republicans had delivered foreign policy peace and success. Today Americans have lost confidence in Republican foreign policy leadership. Then, conservatism was a rising ideological force. Today it is stagnant and declining.

The old ways will not work again. Republicans need new ways--and new ideas. John McCain's success or failure will depend on whether he can find and articulate them.

David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writes a daily column for National Review Online.

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