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Atlanta's shadow over Denver convention
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Unfortunately for their hopefuls, Democrats may be getting ready to party like it’s 1988.
The Democrats open their convention in Denver Monday to launch Barack Obama against the GOP establishment guy, John McCain. The donkeys are already singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The Denver convocation promises to be a wild but premature victory party.
Remember 1988? Twenty years ago thousands of happy Democrats rolled into Atlanta for the big A’s first (and last) national political convention.
Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a lukewarm Dem if ever there was one, took the lead along with Mayor Andrew Young in attracting the convention. However, the late Hamilton Jordan drew up the plans for Atlanta’s debut on the big-time political scene. Young and Harris followed Jordan’s counsel to the letter.
The convention was a success by all measures, though the old Omni was a bit small and Sen. Sam Nunn was locked out at one point. Still, Atlanta received tons of positive international media exposure. Some say the convention laid the groundwork for the Olympics bid. Atlanta had demonstrated it was ready for prime time, or at least that’s what people thought. Aw, but that’s another tale. Let’s stick to this one.
On the last night of the convention, a giant fireworks show exploded in all its glory between the Omni and the World Congress Center. The idea was to instill enthusiasm into those Democrats who could not get into the Omni but wanted to feel a part of the festivities. Of course, the Atlanta show will hardly compare to the light and sound Obama’s folks have planned for Invesco Field in Denver, but Atlanta’s exhibition was nevertheless pretty cool for its time.
Nominee Michael Dukakis marched out of Atlanta with a 17-point lead in the polls against Vice President George H. W. Bush.
To Democrats, it all seemed too good to be true. Turned out it was. Bush won in a landslide, with a count of 426-111 in the Electoral College and a voter margin of nearly 7 million.
So why does the Denver conclave have the feel of Atlanta’s 1988 gathering and subsequent events?
Dukakis had run a brilliant primary campaign. Obama has run a near-perfect primary campaign.
Then Dukakis launched perhaps the worst general-election campaign in history. It remains to be seen how Obama will run, but he has had a rough few weeks lately in the prelims. Events seem to be going McCain’s way. The conflict in the Republic of Georgia threatens to ignite Cold War II with Russia, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to go on and on. McCain’s forte is his experience in international affairs — and war. Obama’s strengths are on domestic issues — the economy, health care and perhaps immigration.
In 1988, Dukakis stumbled repeatedly. He allowed himself to be photographed in a ridiculous situation with a small Army tank. “Dondi Goes to War,” read the comic caption to the photo. Dukakis gave a cold and dry answer to Bernie Shaw’s penetrating question about the candidate’s feeling on the death penalty if his wife were raped. He failed to respond promptly to attacks on his record as Massachusetts governor.
Bush talked constantly about the Pledge of Allegiance and the need to keep the death penalty. Bush also ran following two terms of Ronald Reagan. As popular as Reagan was, he suffered several hits near the end of his reign: Iran-Contra and a general feeling that he was worn out. However, Reagan’s dip in popularity was nothing like the current Bush’s record nosedive in the opinion polls.
What really beat the Democrats in 1988 was a huge disconnect between Dukakis and Middle America — and reality, for that matter.
In their fierce primary fight this year, Hillary Clinton’s strategists spoke repeatedly (mostly in hushed tones) of the disconnect between Obama and ordinary voters. Was that perception real or just phony campaign jabber? We shall soon see which it was.
The conventions of Denver and Atlanta won’t be exactly alike, of course. The economy of 1988 was much better than today’s economy.
Dukakis had the backing of mainstream Democrats and seemed to have a solid chance of besting the perceived milquetoast Republican. Obama may not enjoy such an advantage. Many Clintonites appear reluctant to throw in with Obama’s effort. A feeling also exists among voters that they don’t quite know what makes Obama run. And the race question — will Americans elect a black man president? — hangs heavy over the election of 2008.

You can reach Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail:, or Web address:
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