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DeSantis may want to ask Dukakis about running on Florida record

‘Massachusetts Miracle’ was not enough for 1988 Democratic nominee

Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis tried in 1988 to win national support by running on his record as Massachusetts governor.
Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis tried in 1988 to win national support by running on his record as Massachusetts governor. (Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Does Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis really want to make the 2024 presidential election a referendum on his performance leading the Sunshine State? It would seem so, given his frequent talk about his electoral success and his promise that “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

But DeSantis might want to ask Michael Dukakis about that strategy.

Some 35 years ago, during his 1988 presidential bid, Dukakis talked a great deal about the “Massachusetts Miracle” and his success as governor in jump-starting the state’s economy.

“It has made Michael Dukakis a national figure and could make him president,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Philip Lentz in late May 1988.

Lentz continued: “It has taken a state reeling from the collapse of its traditional manufacturing base and turned it into a booming high-technology economic model for the rest of the country.

“It is the ‘Massachusetts miracle,’ and there is no question of its phenomenal impact on this state: nearly 800,000 new jobs created in 12 years, unemployment at 2.9 percent, a 63 percent growth in personal income in the last seven years, taxes lowered, government services increased.

“The topic has stimulated much debate as Dukakis turned the state’s economic rebound into the leitmotif of his presidential campaign. He brought Massachusetts back, his campaign theme goes; now he can do the same for the rest of the country.”

Four years after Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale acknowledged that he would raise taxes (and got slaughtered at the polls for it), Dukakis’ strategy seemed like a perfect way to show he was a technocrat, not an ideologue — a problem-solver, not a liberal firebrand. This wasn’t the old, “big government” Democratic Party anymore.

The counterattack

All of that sounded great for Dukakis and his party until Republicans led by George H.W. Bush counterattacked, criticizing Dukakis’ performance as governor and using cultural issues to brand the Democratic nominee a “Massachusetts liberal.”

On Sept. 2, 1988, Washington Post reporter Bill Peterson wrote, “George Bush invaded historic Boston Harbor today to accuse the Massachusetts governor of allowing it to become the dirtiest harbor in America.”

“Bush, buoyed by a new poll showing him running neck-and-neck with Dukakis in Massachusetts, blasted the Democratic nominee for ‘neglect of the environment’ and harbor pollution,” continued Peterson.

The sitting vice president did not hold back, charging that “while Michael Dukakis delayed, the harbor got dirtier and dirtier. Half a billion gallons of barely treated sewage a day into the harbor; 70 tons of sewage sludge per day into the harbor; PCBs into the harbor; trace metals into the harbor.”

Suddenly, Dukakis found himself on the defensive as the state’s governor. Instead of his record being an unadulterated asset that allowed him to go on the attack, it now was a mixed bag. Not only that, but Bush could campaign as an environmentalist.

This cycle, DeSantis often talks about his record in the Sunshine State. The question is whether voters outside Florida find the governor’s record so appealing, and whether Democrats can find opportunities to change the narrative about Florida, portraying DeSantis’s strengths as weaknesses, his successes as failures.

Culture wars

On other issues, Bush in 1988 and DeSantis in 2023 struck similar chords. Specifically, both men talked about cultural issues that they believed would help them electorally.

For DeSantis, those issues have involved everything from gender identity and “woke” corporations to trans children and abortion.

Bush’s assortment of cultural themes were different, ranging from crime (using the so-called Willie Horton television ad) to Dukakis’s membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and the governor’s opposition to requiring school children to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Of course, DeSantis has very different goals than Bush and Dukakis did.

Dukakis looked to position himself in the political center. But he lacked charisma, and his response during a debate to a hypothetical question about rape showed his difficulty connecting with voters.

Bush, on the other hand, sought to shore up his support among conservatives by telling delegates to the 1988 GOP convention “Read my lips: No new taxes.” But he also talked about making America “a kinder and gentler nation,” a play for moderates after eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

DeSantis, in contrast, has been moving consistently to the political right, apparently trying to position himself as more conservative than former President Donald Trump. Given Trump’s current standing in the GOP, that is understandable. But DeSantis has not yet shown that he can counterpunch effectively or that the culture wars and his performance as governor will make him a winner.

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