Dukakis: It's Probably Obama in '08, But the Campaign Needs to Improve

“I think we’ve got to be laying the groundwork for this 50-state campaign,” he said. “I don’t mean call 25 of your friends. That is not a precinct-based grassroots organization. Precinct-based is a precinct captain and six block captains for every precinct, accountable and reporting in every Sunday night—how many 1’s, how many 2’s, how many 3’s, how many 4’s. And thanks to [the Internet] you can do this for nothing.”

Mr. Dukakis is particularly critical of the Clinton campaign for its peremptory attitude toward Sen. Obama’s victories in red states. He called this line of attack “a serious mistake on their part” and said: “It is a terrible mistake to assume that you concede half the country to the other side and it comes down to Ohio and Florida. That’s just a terrible strategy.”

“Indiana is a red state?” he asked. “Oh, that’s interesting. Until the
current governor, they had Democratic governors for about 12 years, and their Congressional delegation is now majority Democrat. So why are they a red state? I think there are a dozen so-called red states with Democratic governors. Not bad.”

Sen. Obama has run better in red states, Mr. Dukakis suggested, in part because he’s organized them so well and in part because “this message of coalition-building and building consensus is appealing in those states.”

While Mr. Dukakis’ presidential campaign is best remembered, by historians and by the candidate himself, for its mistakes, he did get at least one thing right—perhaps more right than any other presidential nominee in the modern era: the running-mate choice.

Had the election in 1988 been a referendum on the judgment each candidate showed in selecting someone to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency, Mr. Dukakis’ choice of Lloyd Bentsen would surely have been good for coast-to-coast landslide against Bush and his deer-in-the-headlights No. 2, J. Danforth Quayle.

“That’s one of the things I did well,” Mr. Dukakis said, perhaps happy for once not to be talking about what went wrong 20 years ago. He noted, with pride, that four years after that campaign, Warren Christopher, who was then heading up Bill Clinton’s running-mate search, contacted Paul Brountas, Mr. Dukakis’ longtime friend and his ’88 campaign chairman, to request a copy of the memo that Mr. Brountas gave Mr. Dukakis at the outset of the ’88 V.P. search. He hoped this year’s nominee would take a look at it too, and go through the same methodology..

“First,” he replied, “you invite suggestions from anybody and everybody. You look over the list and you start narrowing it down, get it down to about 10 or 12. Then you start talking to the 10 or 12, and what you’ll find is that some of them will say, ‘Well, I think maybe I won’t.’ They’ve got to understand that they are going to be thoroughly investigated.”

For Mr. Dukakis, the four finalists were Bentsen, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt (both of whom had vied with him for the presidential nomination), and John Glenn.

“And then we organized teams of volunteer accountants and lawyers, one team for each of the four on the final list, who did an absolutely exhaustive investigation,” he recalled. “And the candidates had to understand that, and their families had to understand that. Brountas interviewed them. I interviewed them.”

If you handle the process the right way, Mr. Dukakis said, the right choice will eventually jump out at you—even if, as was the case with Bentsen, it’s a name that wasn’t necessarily on your radar screen at the beginning.

“You’ve got to go through this process,” he said. “People will come up who, on form, nobody would ever think of.”

Of course, in Mr. Dukakis’ view, even the right V.P. selection won’t compensate for a poor ground game. The election is within reach for Democrats, Mr. Dukakis said, if they’ll make the commitment to build at the neighborhood level. The point, he said, has been driven home by Sen. Obama’s recent failures in Pennsylvania and Ohio, states where he substantially outspent Sen. Clinton.

“Look at the kind of money Sen. Obama’s been spending on media,” Mr. Dukakis said. “Doesn’t seem to have an impact, right? What does that tell you? It tells you what anybody in the media business can tell you—unless they’re getting a cut of the media or something—and that’s that conventional media isn’t having the impact that it used to have.”