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Dukakis, Kerry, Obama?

10/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the spring of 2004 I attended a roundtable media discussion with John Kerry at his campaign headquarters. This was not long after Kerry had locked down the Democratic nomination. He was incoherent, droning on in an unorganized fashion about the mistakes of the Bush administration, and various programs he'd push for. There was no concise argument on why he should be elected, and not Bush.

He clearly felt he didn't even need to make such an argument. It was obvious to Kerry that Bush was a failure. He seemed to be living in a kind of Democratic-liberal-Senate cocoon, assuming that its attitudes reflected those of the rest of the country -- or at least, 51 percent of it.

As the campaign wore on, Kerry improved. But this basic, temperamental complacency followed him throughout. We had to wait until the first debate to hear him make a good argument against the Iraq war.

I hate to pile on Obama, as everyone is doing this week. But he seems to share this same temperament: that the blunderbuss attacks coming from the other side are absurd and irrelevant to the "real issues," and thus unworthy of attention, except in rote "I will not be swiftboated" statements. And that the election will ratify what is already obvious to him, and to what he thinks is a majority of Americans.

Dukakis had the same problem. Remember this now-famous SNL sketch from 1988:

Diane Sawyer: You have fifty seconds left, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush: Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.

Diane Sawyer: Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?

Michael Dukakis: I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!

It's amazing that Obama and his team of geniuses could look back at the campaigns of the past 20 years and not devise a strategy to deal with what they're facing now. The Obama campaign is the proverbial aircraft carrier, under attack by a swarm of kamikazes.

Or, maybe Obama really is doubling down on boring and passive. The fundamentals still favor him. And the message of the McCain attacks -- that Obama is rude, or something -- doesn't seem compelling, at least compared the GOP attacks on Dukakis or Kerry, which at least made semi-coherent arguments about leadership. (Dukakis was a down-the-line liberal running during a time of conservative ascendancy; Kerry was a creature of Washington who had trouble articulating clear positions.) It may be that Obama's apparent complacency about dumb attacks is justified -- that people won't buy it this time, that the news cycle gyrations are less important than the political universe believes them to be. We'll see.

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