An Interview with Michael Dukakis

dukakis1Michael Dukakis served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1975–1979 and 1983–1991, making him the longest serving Governor in the state’s history. He was also the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. Dukakis attended Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, and also served in the U.S. army. In a 2008 interview, Dukakis said he “owe[d] the American people an apology” for his 1988 loss to George H. W. Bush, because “if I had beaten the old man, we never would have heard of the kid, and we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Since his term as Governor ended in 1991, Dukakis has worked as a Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and the UCLA School of Public Policy.

The Politic: Let’s start with what’s been on everyone’s minds lately.  Who do you think will win the Presidential race?

I think the President will be reelected, but this is going to be a very tight race.  Anytime you have a soft economy — I don’t care who the incumbent is — it’s trouble for that incumbent.

The Politic: As another Massachusetts Governor running for President, Mitt Romney has inevitably been compared to you.  What do you think of such a comparison?

Well I’m not a big fan of Romney’s, as you can imagine.  I thought he was a lousy Governor when he was here, and in the last couple of years he wasn’t around much.  On his signature issue, which is job creation and reviving the economy, he was a disaster.  This state was 47 out of 50 in job creation under Romney.  Only Michigan, Ohio and Louisiana after Katrina were worse.  And we all know why those states were struggling.  By contrast, [current Massachusetts Governor] Deval Patrick has run rings around him.  We’re now in the top ten and this state is coming out of the recession very vigorously and it’s a whole different ballgame.

In addition to that — and this is an important part of economic leadership — the state’s infrastructure when Romney left office was a wreck.  That’s the only way to describe it.  Rusting bridges, potholed roads; he couldn’t get anything done.  Projects that should have taken 18 months took five years.

Even on healthcare, where he deserved credit for getting the process going, at the eleventh hour he walked away from some of the most important provisions of the bill.  In fact, he vetoed it after months and months of work had gone into [crafting] a consensus bill.  Fortunately he was hugely overridden on the vetoes.  Even Scott Brown voted to override him when he was in the state Senate.  [Romney] not only wasn’t a very good Governor, as I say, on his so-called signature issue — on the economy — he was a disaster!

The Politic: You lost reelection after your first term as Governor, yet came back and won four years later.  To what do you credit this turn-around?

The lessons you learn from defeat, though as I’ve often said, you don’t want to go through it to often.  But I learned a lot of things from that defeat.  I mean I thought we were doing great stuff.  We had come out of this very, very deep recession — far worse in Massachusetts than this past one — and we’d gone down from 12.5 percent unemployment to something like 5.5 percent.

What you forget is that the folks you’re representing aren’t feeling anywhere near as good as you are at that point.  They’ve gone through very tough times.  And the way you bring people together is to build coalitions — to use your office to bring people to the table, to get them involved whether or not they were supportive of you, whether or not they agree with you.  And that’s one of the most important lessons.

I also became a much better listener.  My legislative relations were far better the second time around.  And all these lessons, somewhat painful, were a result of that defeat.  I don’t think there’s any debate that I was a better Governor the second time around.

The Politic: You served as Governor during a period of prosperity in Massachusetts, which has become known as the “Massachusetts Miracle.”  Furthermore, in 1986 the National Governors Association voted you the nation’s most effective Governor.  What advice do you have for Governors today on how to improve the economy?

First you’ve got to work at it.  You’ve got to take it seriously and you’ve got to focus very intensively on it — something that Patrick has done; something that Romney really didn’t do.  You’ve got to come up with a strategy that makes sense for your state, and every state has different issues. … You’ve got to be a coalition-builder.  You can’t do this by yourself — you’ve got to get the business community and the labor community and the political leadership actively into this process and make them a part of it.  And you’ve got to be relentless about it.  Every decision you make has got to be looked at in the context of how it helps implementing a strategic plan for bringing the economy back.  You’ve got to invest in the state’s infrastructure, which is just very important.  I mean its physical infrastructure and its educational system.  Those are the two major building blocks of a successful economy.  And Patrick has done that very impressively in sharp contrast to his predecessor.  [Romney] never seemed to be particularly interested in public education, and as I said, he couldn’t get anything done on the infrastructure front.  It was just pathetic.

The Politic: You won almost 46% of the popular vote in your Presidential run, but secured only 25% of the electoral votes?  Do you believe this system needs to be reformed or that the Electoral College system should be eliminated entirely?

I think it should have been abolished 125 years ago.  It’s undemocratic.  It always was, frankly.  What it does now is it gives us national campaigns in which the candidates basically park themselves in about eight states and the rest of us are kind of watching from the sidelines.  And that’s terrible.  So I’m a big fan of National Popular Vote campaign that Common Cause is running.  That’s one way to get rid of the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution and I’m all for it.

The Politic: Do you believe that the National Popular Vote campaign has any realistic chances of passing nationally?

I think it does, but obviously that depends on who controls state legislatures and who the Governors are.  But it’s the big states that obviously can make a difference and fortunately in most of those states you’ve got people who are sympathetic to the National Popular Vote campaign.

The Politic: Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the 1988 Presidential campaign is the infamous Willie Horton advertisement, which many have derided as racist.  Do you believe politics are nastier and more vicious today, or were back then?

They were even nastier and more vicious in 1789.  You know, there’s nothing new about attack politics in this country.  I think the difference is that now so much of it is electronic.  And thanks to Citizens United — one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court has ever made — we’ve now got millions of dollars in special interest money pouring into these campaigns.  But don’t kid yourself; it was very tough back in the beginning of the Republic.  There’s nothing new about this.

Now I made a big mistake in ’88.  I made a decision — it was no one else’s decision — that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign and it turned out it was just a bad mistake.  You just can’t do that.  If the other guy’s going to come after you, you’ve got to have a carefully thought-out plan for dealing with it, preferably one that turns the attack campaign into a character issue on him.  I had done that very successfully with [Edward] King [who preceded Dukakis as Governor of Massachusetts], but for whatever reason I thought, “Well, it’s the Presidency and I’m a positive guy anyways.”  And that’s what I believed at the time.  But there’s just no question; you can’t sit there getting pounded without responding.

Now, I’m not the only guy that made that mistake; [John] Kerry made it.  And if you ask him, he’ll tell you he should have been ready.  But at least in his case, he can be forgiven for assuming the he — a genuine war hero who put his life on the line for his country — would not be attacked by a guy who was reading magazines on some Air Force base in Alabama in the National Guard [during the Vietnam War].  Nevertheless, if you talk to John, he’d say he should have been ready for it.  And frankly, under the circumstances, I think he would have been entirely justified to Bush, “Look, I don’t care who these people are.  Get that ad off the air in the next 24 hours or your military record and my military record will become major issues in this campaign.”  But he didn’t do that.

I’m not the only guy who’s made this mistake, but very few Democrats have since then.  In fact, Bill Clinton had a separate unit of ten people in his campaign — a number of whom had worked for me in the previous election — and they called themselves the Defense Department.  And all they did was deal with the Bush attacks, which were plentiful, believe me, in ‘92.  People don’t remember that, but if anything Bush went after Clinton even harder than he went after me.  But Clinton was ready for him.  We had all learned from ’88 and we all know what happened in that election.

The Politic: You picked Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to be your running mate in 1988, yet you failed to carry Texas (or any southern state for that matter).  If you had to do it over again, would you still pick Sen. Bentsen?

Yes.  He was an excellent running mate and would have been a terrific Vice President.  I didn’t pick him because I thought I could win Texas.  The single most important criterion when you’re picking a candidate for Vice President is whether that person — if, God-forbid, something happens to the President — would be an excellent President.  Everything else pales by comparison, which is why the Palin thing was so bizarre.  Whatever you thought of her, I don’t think anyone believed a one-year Governor of Alaska was ready to be the President of the United States.  And I think it hurt McCain badly.  The geography thing was interesting, but it doesn’t compare with the basic question: “Is this person capable of being an excellent President?”

The Politic: Do you think that Paul Ryan has the capacity to be an excellent President?

No.  He’s got a philosophy that’s basically rooted in Herbert Hoover economics.  And anyone that thinks that Herbert Hoover economics would be good for this country has no business [running for] President of the United States.  I don’t know how you can be a student of history and conclude that austerity can get you out a recession.  The Europeans have been trying this and they are now heading into another recession.  So if that’s what Ryan believes, he’s got no business being the Vice President of the United States, let alone a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

The Politic: In all of your years in politics, who is the best — most competent, most inspiring and most effective — politician you met?

I think for my generation, Jack Kennedy was probably that person.  Remember, he was from my hometown.  He was a Massachusetts guy.  He had extraordinary gifts in so many ways.  And he was really the inspiration for a whole generation of us who decided in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to get actively involved in electoral politics.  There’s no question about it.

The Politic: You, Jack Kennedy, Governor Romney and Senator Kerry are all from Massachusetts, as well as many up-and-coming politicians that could run for national office like Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren or even Scott Brown.  What do you think it is about Massachusetts that has led to so many national figures?

Something in the water, no question about it!  Look, there’s a tradition here.  From birth, we’re all brought up on two things: politics and the Red Sox.  And it’s an important tradition in the state.  People take their politics seriously.  I’ve been out ringing doorbells for Elizabeth Warren and I must say I’m very impressed with the voters I’m talking to.  No one has to tell them about the Senate race or about who Elizabeth Warren is.

I’ve got a son-in-law who’s originally from St. Louis and now lives with my daughter in Denver.  We were walking around [Brookline, Massachusetts] and people were saying, “Hey Mike,” “Hey Duke,” and other things.  And he said if the Governor of Colorado walked down the street … nobody would know who he was.  In this town, everybody knows who you are, at least if they’re over thirty.  It’s not that Colorado is apolitical, it’s just different here.

The Politic: Do you have any predictions for the competitive Senate race in Massachusetts between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren?

If Elizabeth Warren and her campaign do the fieldwork on a precinct-by-precinct basis and the work hard at it, she will win.  But that’s got to be done — intensively and effectively.  I don’t have any sense that Brown has much of a field operation, but she does.  And every single precinct in this state has got to be canvassed and recanvassed.  And if that’s done, she’ll win.  But it’s got to be done.  So Kitty and I are out on weekends going to different parts of the state, giving canvassing groups a pep-talk and then going out and ringing door bells with them for a couple of hours.  It’s a lot of fun.

The Politic: What do you believe is the best way to involve young people in the political process?

Get them into this stuff early and put them to work.  They ought to be precinct captains and they ought to be out there doing this work from an early age.  If I had my druthers, every single high school student in this country, during his junior or senior year, would not only take a government or politics course, but would do some kind of internship with a local official.  I think that’s very important.

I remember when I was a state Representative the town of Brookline decided that in the last half of senior year in high school that they’d permit folks to go out and do something half-time.  And whatever — if they wanted to work for some outstanding chef in a restaurant, they could do that.  Anyways, I got a call from the guidance department, asking if I’d like a high school senior as an intern.  In those days, we had no staff of any kind.  We didn’t even have offices until that year when they put about six of us in one room.  But all of a sudden I had one of these Brookline high school seniors spending half of the second semester of his senior year coming to the State House.  [He and the subsequent interns] were not only terrific kids who were an enormous help to me, but every single one of them went into public service for his or her career.  Every one of them.  One of the reasons I’m here at Northeastern [University] is that I love the co-op program.  I love what it does and what I can do to open up doors for these kids.

The Politic: What advice do you have for college students today?

Do every single internship you can.  They are transformative experiences.  And then use the experience to build a career in public service.  Fortunately, your generation has an awful lot of young people who want to do this.


Eric Stern is a sophomore in Pierson College.


Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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