Back in 1988, Michael Dukakis beat Al Gore for the Democratic nomination for president. Then Dukakis lost the fall race to Republican George Herbert Walker Bush.


And that was that.


Dukakis went back to Massachusetts, finished his term as the state’s highly-regarded governor.


Gore went back to the Senate, passed on a 1992 presidential run and then ended up as Bill Clinton’s vice president and the 2000 Democratic nominee for president. Then he became a movie star, won a Grammy and picked up a Nobel Peace Prize.


They are both good men. But you won’t hear much about them in a Democratic debate these days. History has moved forward, except for in a Republican Party that seems to be more interested in the political contests of the 1980s than the challenges of the 21st century.


Wednesday night’s NBC/Politico debate at the Ronald Reagan Library between the Republican presidential candidates featured frequent and bizarre tangles between the contenders over Gore and Dukakis — and, of course, former President Reagan.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who arrived at the Reagan Library on a mission to stall Texas Governor Rick Perry’s rise in the polls, took the first shot.


Perry has been talking up the relative economic vibrance of Texas, but Romney argued the Texan’s policies had less to do with it than state tax policies and a right-to-work law that were in place long before Perry took charge. "Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things," said Romney. "If he did, it would be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet."


Instead of responding, Perry told Romney: "Michael Dukakis created created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt."


Here’s the backstory.


In the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan served in the White House, Rick Perry was a Democrat. He had been elected to the state legislature in 1984 on a ticket led by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale. In 1988, he backed Tennessee Senator Gore for the Democratic Presidential nomination, even serving according to some accounts as a Gore campaign chair. Later that year, Perry was reelected to the legislature on a Democratic ticket led by Michael Dukakis.


What exactly was the Dukakis jab at Romney all about? Perry, who pretty much owned the stage, was slyly saying: "Don’t forget that Mitt Romney is from Massachusetts — Kennedy Country."


Was that the end of the Republican trip down memory lane?


No way. Rick Perry rocketed back to the future with a Herbert Hoover-style assault on Social Security, dismissing the immensely popular program as a "Ponzi scheme" that was ripe for the dismantling.


That put Perry out there on the far-right wing with Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who until now has had the really, really anti-government turf pretty much to himself.


Biut don’t think that Perry and Paul occupy any common ground.


Paul took one of his numerous shots at Perry — who after taking hits from all the other contenders allowed as how: "I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party." Paul has been the most aggressive Perry critic among the GOP contenders; he has even begun to air anti-Perry TV ads. And Perry has obviously noticed.


He brought up the fact that Paul quit the Republican Party in 1987, with a letter that declared: "If Ronald Reagan couldn’t or wouldn’t balance the budget, which Republican leader on the horizon can we possibly expect to do so? There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government. That is the message of the Reagan years."


"I conclude that one must look to other avenues if a successful effort is ever to be achieved in reversing America’s direction," wrote Paul. "I therefore resign my membership in the Republican Party and enclose my membership card."


In 1988, he was the Libertarian Party candidate for president.


Perry’s reference to the letter created some real tension, as Wednesday night’s debate was held at a library named for Reagan, who has become an iconic figure for (most) conservatives.


But Paul held his ground, telling Perry and the crowd (which included former First Lady Nancy Reagan): "In the 1980s, we spent too much, we taxed too much, and we built up our deficits and it was a bad scene."


So there you have the Republican presidential debate: A guy who backed Al Gore hailed the job creation record of Michael Dukakis, on whose ticket the guy ran in the 1988 general election. Then he attacked a guy who ran against Dukakis, before the guy who ran against Dukakis attacked the economic record of Ronald Reagan — at the Reagan Library, no less.