It will be 2015 soon, which means more and more presidential hopefuls will begin to test the waters for a 2016 run at the White House. That year will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1996 election, in many respects the last civil presidential campaign we’ve had – and possibly the last one we’ll have in a long while.
Removing partisanship and ideology from the equation and looking at the candidates over the last 20 years, and measuring only two things: 1) how they behaved and 2) how they fared, three truly “nice guys” come to mind, all of who chose to forego negative campaigning in favor of dignity and decorum, even though it cost them the election and any future political viability. They are: Michael Dukakis, Jack Kemp, and Joe Lieberman.
And they are a species that is quickly becoming extinct.
Greek-Americans, of course, remember Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid particularly well. He was only one of two Greek-Americans ever to have a realistic chance at becoming president (the other was Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President, who would have become president in August 1974 when Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, except that Agnew himself resigned a year earlier, pleading no contest to bribery charges).
Beyond his ancestral heritage – meaningful primarily to Greeks and a trivial footnote to most others – Dukakis is also known as the candidate who stayed above the fray and refused to get down in the mud and fight fire with fire. He was the victim of the modern-day architect of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, who masterminded an attack ad onslaught that caused George H.W. Bush to erase and rapidly reverse a lead Dukakis held over him in the Summer of 1988, long before most Greeks returned back to the United States from there – where the natives were thrilled that one of their own was going to be elected leader of the free world.
Dukakis lost that election, of course, and never ran for political office again. Over the years, on many occasions he has lamented running “a lousy campaign,” and not responding to the cheap shots hurled against him by Atwater’s goons.
Eight years later, in 1996, veteran Senator Bob Dole chose longtime New York Congressman Jack Kemp to be his running mate as the two Republicans challenged the incumbent Democrats, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Clinton and Gore had no reason to be nasty – they enjoyed a comfortable lead heading into the fall debates, and all they needed to do was hold serve. Dole and Kemp, on the other hand, were advised to get down and dirty. They refrained.
Kemp, in particular, expected as the running mate to play the role of “henchman” – to smear the president in a way that is unseemly for the ticket headliner to do – remained defiant: “I’m not an attack dog,” he said. His congeniality even caused Al Gore – who four years later as a presidential contender huffed and sighed his way into a self-destructive dip in the polls – to seem somewhat likable. But Gore couldn’t leave well enough alone: he had to berate Dole’s and Kemp’s proposed across-the-board tax cut of 15 percent as a “risky tax scheme.” All night long, a flustered Kemp simply stood by idly as Gore very methodically and robotically continued to utter the “risky tax scheme” mantra, sounding more droning and mechanical each time. How positively Dukakis-like of Kemp it was – reminiscent of when Bush scolded the former in the 1988 debates and Dukakis looked on sheepishly, like an admonished schoolboy.
It is no wonder, then, Kemp’s political career was over after the election. Once highly touted as the heir apparent to Ronald Reagan – he was the driving force of Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts – Kemp was shunned by the Republican powers-that-be, cast aside in 2000 in favor of the grittier George W. Bush, who out-Gored Gore by referring to the vice president’s numbers as “fuzzy math,” leaving a flustered Gore to his incessant loud sighs.
But Gore had a nice guy on his team in 2000: his running mate, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. So nice, in fact, that Bush’s own vice presidential pick, Dick Cheney, a pit bull of a henchman if ever there was one, heeled when the two running mates debated. But Lieberman, Nice Guy #3, didn’t fare any better than #1 and #2. And in 2004, when he ran for president, his former ticket teammate Al Gore was quick to support someone else – in the early stages of the primaries. Was it the eventual nominee, John Kerry? No, it was Howard Dean, who shortly fizzled out. So, not only did Gore stab his nice guy ally in the back, he didn’t even have the wherewithal to at least pick a winner.
Which brings us to 2012: unless by some miracle we have a showdown between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Mike Huckabee, there will be plenty of slung mud to go around. The Democrats – until it’s proven otherwise – will nominate Hillary Clinton, whose cutting remarks reflect less the demeanor of her husband than that of his vice president. And if that’s the case, then it is highly unlikely the Republicans will look for a loudmouth blowhard to challenge her to a good old-fashioned schoolyard brawl.
Civility be damned. Lee Atwater would be proud.