During the Democratic primary debate at the Felt Forum in New York City, in April 1988, Al Gore pointed out that Michael Dukakis had a big problem.
The senator from Tennessee mentioned that the Massachusetts governor, who had leapt to the front of the Democratic primary field, had sustained a furlough program that involved “weekend passes for convicted criminals,” one of whom had committed rape and assault while furloughed.
I thought of that moment in the Democratic debate in 1988 last week, after former Obama Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was pilloried for suggesting that former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the nomination, was struggling to recall the details of his own health plan, asking Biden, “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?” Some Democrats, including the Biden campaign, suggested Castro had taken a “cheap shot;” Representative Vicente Gonzalez even switched his endorsement from Castro to Biden. Castro, for his part, said that his remarks were “not a personal attack.”
Let’s say it was a cheap shot. Let’s say it was personal. So what?
Back in 1988, Gore, languishing in third place behind Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, was trashed as a sore loser. His mention of the furlough program was rude. It was shocking. It was uncivil. Maybe even racist. Gore “had, it seemed, engaged in the clumsiest kind of negative campaigning, and countenanced a harsh and racially charged strategy to advance his own improbable candidacy,” The New York Times recalled in a 2000 retrospective. During the debate, Dukakis, comfortable in his front-runner status, breezily dismissed Gore’s criticism. “Al, the difference between you and me is that I have to run a criminal-justice system,” Dukakis replied. “You never have.” The Massachusetts governor would go on to cite low crime statistics in his home state.