05/05/2008 12:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Specter of 1988

I covered the 1988 presidential campaign. I was in my 20s and had no idea what I was doing, though I did enjoy myself. And watching as the George H.W. Bush campaign turned it into a referendum on prison furloughs and the pledge of allegiance (the reductio ad absurdum being Bush's visit to a flag factory), I learned some fundamental lessons about politics: Democrats must never be outflanked in the culture wars. A Democrat must never allow him/herself to be portrayed as less than 100 percent patriotic; must always express outrage at crime, even hypothetical ones; and never be photographed riding in a tank. (The coda being: never allow yourself to be photographed in a flight suit. Politicians may control the military and exploit it symbolically or bureaucratically -- but they shouldn't literally cloak themselves in it.) The final lesson: at its highest levels, politics is most effective when reduced to the trivial and sentimental, to cultural hot buttons divorced from the actual functioning of government or the presidency.

But are these rules still in force today? With the exception of the tank/flight suit rule, I'm doubting it more and more. But 1988 won"t go away:

That year, the Republicans used the symbols of nationhood (notably, whether schoolchildren should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance) to bludgeon the Democrats, challenge their patriotism and utterly redefine their nominee, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

The memory of that campaign -- reinforced, for many, by the attacks on Senator John Kerry's Vietnam war record in the 2004 election -- haunts Democrats of a certain generation.

The 1988 campaign was, in many ways, the crucible that helped create Bill Clinton's centrist philosophy and his fierce commitment to attack and counterattack, which drove the politics of the 1990s.

Things have changed. It's the attitudes of the political class and the media that haven't.

Unlike '88, there are now some real issues before the country, and a record level of political engagement among Democrats, and, with conservatism in the ditch, a sense that some kind of political-cultural change is afoot. The main question now is not about the cultural resonance of, say, Obama's absent flag pin. (It does have some.) It's that much of the media is still stuck in 1988, and that 1988 itself has gained a kind of mythic resonance with the campaign press corps.

Back then, the press corps was a bit stunned at the success of such tactics (which were very self-consciously, almost ironically, employed by the otherwise temperamentally and politically moderate elder Bush). Today, by contrast, the media almost revels in it when the culture war's long knives are drawn. There's a weird bloodlust to it.

The media won't give up its flag pins easily. The "1988 forever" bit of conventional wisdom is the cornerstone of the current campaign press sensibility. But by definition, the conventional wisdom is, and must be, several beats behind what's actually happening.