THE BLOG
09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dukakis vs. Tyson

"FightTheSmears.com"? Not good enough. It's time for "StartSomeShit.Com."

History doesn't just repeat itself. For the Democrats it's like a broken record. Once again the party's blowing a healthy lead by being reluctant to engage its opponent. It's Groundhog Day starring Michael Dukakis, and Obama's VFW speech yesterday could have come directly from the Dukakis playbook.

Defensive plays like "FightTheSmears" are all well and good, but where's the offense? The GOP keeps throwing roundhouse blows. When they start to lose they make like Mike Tyson and bite somebody's ear off. Meanwhile Democrats fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules -- that is, if they deign to fight at all.

Some of us have been taught that it's wrong to speak harshly of others unless unless there's a higher purpose. Well, there is a higher purpose: This country's on the ropes and a McCain victory could devastate it. But instead of a fight, for the last month we've been getting the same old Democratic listlessness -- and the same impulse to be overly conciliatory. Obama ran a tough, smart primary campaign. Where did that guy go?

Meanwhile McCain's been hitting below the belt, lashing out like a punchdrunk flyweight. And guess what? It's working. You're not going to stop Raging Bull's Mini-Me with oratory and Facebook pages.

Look at the parallels between that VFW speech and this 24-year old Dukakis ad. First, Obama:

"... one of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.

Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain."

Now for the Dukakis ad. It shows him angrily turning off his television as a George Bush Sr. commercial is running, then turning to the camera and saying:

"I'm fed up with it! Never seen anything like it in 25 years of public life, George Bush's negative TV ads. distorting my record. Full of lies and he knows it. I'm on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I'm against. I want to build a strong defense. I'm sure he wants to build a strong defense. So this isn't about defense issues. It's about dragging the truth into the gutter.

And I'm not going to let them do it! This campaign is too important. The stakes are too high for every American family."

Why do Democrats feel the need to reassure voters of their opponent's noble intentions? Who says they have noble intentions? And something else: What's striking about the Dukakis ad in retrospect is how good it is. His delivery is clear and forceful, and he seems to be making strong points. It's as good, in fact, as a defensive ad can get. And it didn't work.

That was the lesson of 1988, one that may have been forgotten: You can't land any punches from a defensive crouch. Dukakis is a brilliant man and he would have been a fine President. But he was painted as too cerebral, too passionless, and too remote from the occasionally atavistic impulses and emotions that drive us all. That was unfair -- but it's a candidate's job to triumph over unfairness.

Bernard Shaw's infamous "if Kitty Dukakis were raped ..." question was a low moment in American political journalism (up until then), and it set the tone this year's debate moderation. But you go to your campaign/war with the press corps you have, not the press corps you wish you had. You learn how to get your message across in a punchy way, even if -- especially if -- the questions are loaded.

Here's another problem with the defensive crouch: The candidates are defending themselves. Voters don't care if somebody lied about a politician! They figure that comes with the job title. What they want to know is what that politician will do for them.

Then there's the fact that both Dukakis and Obama affirm their opponent's good intentions, even as that opponent goes about slandering them. Why? In this context that looks weak, not generous or gracious.

Books have been written about why these tactics don't work, but the real reason is as simple as the old adage about the best defense being a good offense. You won't knock an opponent out with FightTheSmears.com -- or, for that matter, with ruminative evenings like the one Sen. Obama spent last weekend with Rick Warren.

Obama has new ads attacking McCain's voting record. That's good, but it's not enough. As uncomfortable as it may make them, the Democrats are going to have to hit McCain on his seemingly endless list of vulnerabilities: The flip-flops. His laziness. His craven surrender on matters of principle. His lobbyist minders. His misunderstanding of basic facts. And then there are all those legitimate questions about his personal integrity and character.

McCain's not reluctant to do whatever it takes to win. If his opponent is, the results will be all too predictable. If the past month's caution was born of a desire to protect Obama's lead, forget about it. That lead is gone. He may have hoped to avoid a brawl, but he can't. It's on.

But, some may ask, what about McCain's war record? The answer is simple: Stop bringing it up. That's their job, not yours. Remember, Bob Dole was a war hero too - and he lost.

Consensus is a beautiful thing, but it starts by forming a consensus around the understanding that we won and you lost. As for "FightTheSmears.Com" -- after watching McCain score with lowball tactics, I'm ready for a website that attacks rather than defends.

Is "StartSomeShit.com" taken?
_____________________

UPDATE: Some are saying that this is all premature panic, etc. etc., because the campaign's got a long-term strategy and they're holding the good stuff for the right time. In other words, we're told they're playing the old Rope-A-Dope.

But there's a difference between rope-a-dope and letting the other guy beat you senseless for the first three rounds. (Update 2: This guy used my boxing metaphor to defend Obama's strategy, but what he forgets is that Obama emerged from the primaries badly damaged. Anyone who thinks he benefited somehow from holding back wasn't really paying attention.)

Here's the bottom line: Obama's a relatively new national figure, which means first impressions count - a lot. He's been getting painted - successfully - as "just another wishy-washy Democrat elitist." He started going on the attack today, which is good. Let's hope he sticks with it, and that it undoes any damage done during the last few weeks.

As for those who are put out by these criticisms, a word: Now is not the time for Democrats to get defensive or turn Pollyanna-ish. It's time to point out, if only to beat a metaphor to death, that the bell has rung.

RJ Eskow blogs at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog
Future-While-U-Wait
RJ Eskow at the Huffington Post