Michael Dukakis has seen this script before: a Republican administration besieged by scandal and running out the clock on its second term, while wide-eyed Democrats confidently lick their chops, knowing there’s no way in hell voters will reward the G.O.P. with four more years in the White House.
It was around this very moment 20 years ago, the summer when Oliver North told Congress he was “authorized to do everything that I did” and Reagan fatigue took hold, that Mr. Dukakis, then the 53-year-old governor of Massachusetts, emerged at the head of a crowded Democratic presidential pack. By the time he was formally nominated in Atlanta the following July, he’d opened a 17-point lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush.
“I can handle this guy,” Mr. Dukakis supposedly replied around that time when John Sasso, his consultant in exile, asked to return to the campaign. “You worry about the first 100 days.”
So you can understand why the numerous harbingers of a triumphant 2008 for Democrats—George W. Bush’s Nixonian approval ratings, polls that show voters favoring a Democratic White House candidate by double-digit margins, the electorate’s historical aversion to three-term rule by one party—haven’t prompted Mr. Dukakis to begin planning his trip to the 2009 inaugural celebration.
“We’re not going to outspend the other guys,” he said during an interview in his modest office in the political science department at Northeastern University, where he was the first to arrive (at 7:30 a.m.) on a recent midsummer morning. “We’re probably not going to outstrategize them. And some crazy guy will blow up a building with three weeks to go, you know, and then we’ll be back in Bush-land again.”
Since his fall collapse was made official on Nov. 8, 1988—an eight-point, 426-to-112 electoral-vote loss to George H.W. Bush—Democrats have held up Mr. Dukakis’ general election campaign as a case study in the perils of not hitting back. In 1992, Bill Clinton, with his rapid response team and pitch-perfect shaming of Mr. Bush in their first debate, showed he’d learned the lesson; in 2004, John Kerry showed that he’d forgotten it.
But while Mr. Dukakis readily indicts himself for fatally ignoring the 1988 version of Swift-Boating—the G.O.P.’s success with Willie Horton, he said, “was my own damn fault; no one else’s”—he worries that his party has oversimplified the lesson of his defeat, and of Mr. Kerry’s and Al Gore’s, too. And if Democrats don’t learn the right lesson soon, he fears they’ll be locked out of the White House for a third straight time in 2008—no matter how rosy the electoral math now looks.
“We have to organize every damn precinct in the United States of America—all 185,000,” Mr. Dukakis said. “I’m serious. I’m deadly serious. I didn’t do it after the primary [in 1988]. Don’t ask me why, because that’s the way I got myself elected from the time I was running for town meeting in Brookline to the time I ran for governor.”
And when he talks about organizing, he doesn’t mean the legions of eager college students—think the orange-hat-clad “Perfect Storm” that Howard Dean sought to rain down on Iowa in 2004—who are shipped off to key states for crunch-time grunt work. He also doesn’t mean limiting the outreach to “likely” Democratic voters, because—especially after seven years of George W. Bush—“there are huge numbers of disaffected Republicans out there. Who says they won’t vote for us?”
“I’m talking about every precinct,” he said, “with a precinct captain and six block-captains that make personal contact with every single voting household. And I mean starting a year in advance. I’m not talking about parachuting in with two weeks to go. That’s baloney. And these people are people who’ve got to be from the precinct, of the precinct, look like the precinct and talk like the precinct.”
The way he tells it, this was the missing ingredient in his 1988 effort—a powerful and utterly economical tool that, if properly deployed, could have blunted the Bush campaign’s character-assassination-by-paid-media, and one that could spare Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama his ultimate fate.
True to his technocratic roots, Mr. Dukakis has the idea of replicating, on every street, avenue, and rural route in the country, the kind of personal relationships that once powered big-city political machines—with precinct captains calling on their neighbors every few weeks, asking them about their concerns, talking up their candidate and following up on any questions they might have. Mr. Dukakis’ vision is rooted in good government—making sure, for instance, that a neighbor’s concerns about school vouchers are satisfactorily addressed.
That kind of personalized operation early on, Mr. Dukakis believes, can keep voters from believing the worst when the Willie Horton and Swift Boat campaigns begin.
“There’s a chemistry there, which is hard to describe unless you’ve done it,” he said. “Otherwise, it permits your opponent to paint you as something you aren’t. It happened to me. It happened to Kerry. They tried to do it to Clinton. They’ll try to do it to anybody.”
Here’s how Mr. Dukakis broke down the struggle that Mr. Kerry—Mr. Dukakis’ lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1985—faced three years ago.
“You never had a sense that people felt personally connected to the guy, right? Had he had that kind of operation going nationally, there would have been a much stronger feeling of personal connection. Why? Because average folks in the neighborhood are out pushing him.”
Mr. Dukakis says he pleaded with Mr. Kerry to build a meaningful precinct-based organization in 2004, but couldn’t break through. Now he’s working informally with the Democratic National Committee, where Chairman Howard Dean—he of the 50-state strategy—is much more receptive to the concept. But so far, Mr. Dukakis said, none of the 2008 Democrats seem serious about his brand of organizing.
“The guy who ought to be doing it, above any of them, is Obama, because he’s probably got 300,000 contributors,” he notes. “Every one of those people, as soon as the contribution comes in: ‘Thank you and will you be a precinct captain?’ Or, ‘Thank you, this guy is your precinct captain—will you be one of his block captains?’”