The 1988 Presidential election was the first one that Joe Biden attempted to run in. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nominee for three months before he was caught plagiarizing Neil Kinnock and Bobby Kennedy and lying about his academic performance. Biden subsequently dropped out of the race.
1988 was also the first election in which Donald Trump tested his viability as a presidential candidate. He spent $94,801 (roughly $200,000 today) on advertisements calling for America to stay out of Central America, control spending, and negotiate with the Soviet Union on nuclear disarmament. John F. Kerry was so impressed that he tried to talk Trump into switching parties.
Trump wasn’t the only businessman to flirt with a run in 1988. Lee Iacocca, the president and CEO of Chrysler, was also a frequently mentioned Democratic candidate. In the 1980s, Iacocca was all over television with commercials like these two:
You can see why some Democrats loved the idea of the guy running. He was a businessman who came across like a plain-spoken, common Joe (to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden). That he was a successful CEO would presumably counter the Democrats’s anti-business reputation. At a time when Japan and Germany were openly mocking American workers, Iacocca said that American workers were capable of anything they put their mind to.
Lee Iacocca was serious enough about running for President that he wrote a campaign book, Talking Straight:
Talking Straight laid out Iacocca’s vague vision for what America had to do to be, to borrow another phrase, “great again.” It’s platform was pro-business and socially liberal, the type of policies that would bring Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992 and keep him there in 1996. Iacocca also said that he would create a cabinet-level Department of Communications and Tom Brokaw would be put in charge of it.
Ultimately, Iacocca didn’t run for President, though he came close to taking the plunge. He was talked out of it by former House Speaker Tip O’Neill. O’Neill said that there was no way that a TV personality with no elective experience would ever be President.
Iacocca would have one final chance to enter politics. In 1991, Pennsylvania’s Governor Bob Casey (who would, himself, come close to running for President in 1996) offered to appoint Iacocca to the U.S. Senate. Iacoccoa turned Casey down. Instead, a respected but little-known academic named Harris Wofford was appointed to the seat. Wofford was subsequently elected, in an upset victory, to a full term. Wofford’s victory was an early sign that voters were dissatisfied with the Republican Party and it helped to convince a little-known governor of Arkansas to jump into the 1992 presidential race. In fact, Bill Clinton was so impressed with Wofford’s campaign that he hired his campaign managers, Paul Begala and James Carville. In the Senate, Wofford would go on to become of the first advocates for universal health care, an advocacy that would lead to Wofford losing his seat in 1994 but also to what eventually became Obamacare in 2009. It can be argued that, by turning down that Senate seat, Lee Iacocca changed the course of American history.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992 and was a forgotten figure for several years. He was brought back as the corporate spokesman in 2005 but he seemed out of place doing commercials for Snoop Dogg.
Lee Iacocca died yesterday, due to complications for Parkinson’s Disease. He was 94 years old.