AMERICA, MEET WILLIE HORTON
George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis, President, 1988
The presidential election of 1988 is considered by a number of journalists, political scientists, and other observers of the political process to be one of the major turning points in the more recent history of negative campaigning. Maybe that's because, at least from a political strategist's point of view, it was so brutally effective.
It was a textbook example of how to take your opponent apart, limb from limb. I'm not saying that's a good thing, I'm just saying that the Bush campaign in 1988 achieved precisely what it set out to do. And what had it set out to do? When asked that very question, Bush's campaign czar, Lee Atwater, answered with what has now become a famous quote in the annals of presidential politics: "I'm going to scrape the bark off of Michael Dukakis."1
The two candidates faced very different challenges in gaining their party's nomination. For George Bush, the challenge was emerging from the shadow of President Ronald Reagan, the first two-term American president since Dwight Eisenhower and a cultural icon to many American voters.
Even though Bush had a military background and had served in numerous high-level government posts in his government career, his public image was one of timidity and relative weakness in comparison to Ronald Reagan. In fact, Bush had to combat what had come to be known as the "wimp factor" in his quest to follow Reagan into the White House.