1988–Dukakis Debate Performance–Jared Owens
One of the biggest gaffes in Presidential campaign rhetoric came during the 1988 election of Bush vs. Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sought to portray Dukakis as an almost radical leftist, who opposed the rule of reciting the pledge of allegiance in schools everyday, self-proclaimed himself as a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and vetoed a bill to end a prison furlough program for first-degree murderers. His stance on prisoner rights was something that complimented one of his other main views of the election, and something that the Bush campaign and some of the public criticized and questioned – his extreme opposition to the death penalty. This stance and, more importantly, his strategy during the general election to defend that stance, ultimately halted his progress in the race, and the Bush campaign took full advantage of Dukakis’s missteps.
During the second Presidential debate of the election, reporter Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis the following, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state.” Dukakis went on to talk about the drop in Massachusetts’ crime rate and segued into the need for international cooperation in the war against drugs.
The question was meant to give Dukakis an opportunity to show an emotional side of a candidate dubbed by many as the “Ice Man.” The voters had not seen any emotion from Dukakis, and this question was the one the viewers were waiting for. Shaw had said that the voters had a difficult time getting a “feeling fix” on Dukakis, and felt that only a very personal question could elicit an emotional response. Shaw even stated that he feared that he might be criticized for asking too-easy of a question (CNN). Those who watched the debate were very turned off by Dukakis’s almost emotionless reply. Many observers felt Dukakis’s answer lacked the passion one would expect of a person discussing a loved one’s rape and death. Even Dukakis himself mentioned that he believed that question, in part, cost him the election. Bush did not to particularly well in that debate either, but he simply did not have to after Dukakis’s terrible approach to Shaw’s question.
After that debate, Dukakis’s poll numbers dropped from 49% to 42% nationally that same night (Wiki). While some commentators thought the question itself was unfair because it injected an irrelevant emotional element into the discussion of a policy issue and forced the candidate to make a difficult choice, the public still wanted some sort of “human” response.