No one has (yet) asked Ralph Northam what he would do if his wife were to be killed by an illegal immigrant. But this seems the only thing missing to date in the weird replay in the Virginia gubernatorial contest of the presidential contest twenty-nine years ago between Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and Ronald Reagan’s then-vice president, George H.W. Bush.
Finding himself 19 points behind Dukakis in the spring of 1988, Bush had to deflate the Democrat. He found gold in two nuggets. The clueless Democrat had suggested that the pledge of allegiance in public schools in his state was an optional matter. He had also furloughed a killer on a weekend vacation in which he harmed still more people.
Finding himself even further behind Northam a few months ago, Gillespie found similar gold in matters relating to crime (immigrant gangs), flags (athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem), and the restoration of voting and gun rights to felons. Democrats and the press thought these matters were risible, and decency required that he lose like a gentleman.
Like Bush, Gillespie thought otherwise. The press and the Democrats did not take it well, but they may not have the final say in the matter tonight.
The take at the time was that Bush 41 had sold out his soul to the devil, destroyed his good name for the foreseeable future, and dealt the system a blow of surpassing dimensions, from which it might never recover at all. “The...campaign of 1988 did something new,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in her book on the matter. “A degradation occurred which we may have to live with...the Bush campaign broke the mold [with] negative campaigning of a new order of magnitude...the way to win is to go on the offensive...early, distort positions to whatever degree you can get away with, play upon people’s fears and prejudices...and never let up.”
In their campaign book, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover hit the same note of disgusted astonishment: “Did issues like the flag...prison furloughs, and the death penalty warrant crowding out...the economy...homelessness....global trade...and relations with the Soviet Union?” they asked us incredulously. “Most striking about Bush’s use of such tactics was his success in getting away with it...Dukakis simply found it impossible to believe that such ‘issues’...would be taken seriously as legitimate concerns.”
But if this was a huge body blow we would live with forever, it sure passed quickly. By the time Gillespie got down to his degradations, those of George H.W. Bush were scarcely remembered at all.
“We used to think that however grotesque they were there was still a difference between overt declarations and explicit racial politics on one hand and dog whistles and implicit racial politics on the other,” wrote Thomas B. Edsall last week in the Times. “That distinction seems to be fading, if it is not gone altogether.”
“Fading?” But wasn’t it killed forever, the first time George H.W. Bush shattered the norms and degraded the culture, 29 long years ago?
“Putting what’s left of his conscience and decency in cold storage, he has been pushing out ads that make the [furlough] spot look like Mr. Rogers,” Andrew Sullivan wrote of Gillespie in New York. He wrote that the GOP nominee had embraced the “Trump-transformed GOP.”
But it is less Trump he embraced than Bush 41. In his day, he was called all the same things, but he went on after all to become a pretty good president and a much-beloved elder statesman. Poppy went on to become the epitome of all of the cherished old values from before Republicans went wrong, and he is today a well-known opponent of Trump.
Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."