The Massachusetts Democratic primary, along with nearly two dozen other primaries and caucuses, was held on Feb. 5. Hillary Clinton won it by 15 points, one of her best showings anywhere this year, and Michael Dukakis voted in it—but he won’t say for whom.
“I voted for a candidate, yeah,” is about all Mr. Dukakis, the state’s former governor and a lifelong resident of Brookline, will say.
Mr. Dukakis has maintained an adamantly neutral public stance throughout the campaign, hoping instead to sell both candidates and their campaigns on the need for assembling a massive grassroots organizing effort—a captain and six block leaders in all 200,000 precincts in the country—for the fall. But he also said that Barack Obama will probably be the nominee and the race decided by early June, and possibly much sooner, with primaries in Indiana and North Carolina on tap next week.
“If Obama wins both of those states on the sixth of May, I don’t see how as a practical matter he doesn’t have it,” Mr. Dukakis, who officially clinched the Democratic nomination in June 1988, said in an interview this week.
If he doesn’t score a two-state sweep, Mr. Dukakis said, the contest will be decided “relatively quickly” after the final primaries, in South Dakota and Montana on June 3, with the remaining undecided superdelegates quickly making their preferences known. Asked whether the pledged-delegate count—which Sen. Obama is assured of leading—and popular-vote tally will be decisive, Mr. Dukakis said, “I would think. I mean, we’ve had a contest. You look at the numbers.”
An ally of Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman who has taken a hard line against Florida’s and Michigan’s claims to full convention representation based on their January contests, Mr. Dukakis bristles at the notion that Sen. Clinton should get any credit—in delegates or in popular votes—for her nominal victories there.
“Florida and Michigan are off the table,” he said. “I mean, how many times do you move the goal posts? There were no contests in Florida and Michigan—none. My solution is to split the delegations and seat them 50-50 (half for Sen. Obama and half for Sen. Clinton). That’s all. The Clinton campaign wouldn’t be happy about that.”
That’s putting it mildly. Under Mr. Dukakis’ guidelines, it’s next to impossible to create a scenario in which Sen. Clinton overtakes Sen. Obama in the cumulative popular vote over the final month of the campaign. So if he believes superdelegates should lean on the pledged delegate and popular vote metrics and that they should not factor Florida and Michigan into their thinking, isn’t Mr. Dukakis, in effect, saying that she has no realistic chance of emerging with the nomination?
“All I can tell you is at this point it looks as if he is likely to be the nominee,” he replied. “But, you know, funny things happen in this business. I can’t tell you what they might be. All I can tell you is it ain’t over till it’s over.”
A funny thing, of course, once happened to Mr. Dukakis while he was on his way to the White House. Twenty years ago, Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes and the rest of George H.W. Bush’s image-makers reduced Mr. Dukakis to a laughable caricature of bloodless liberalism, turning what was once a 17-point Dukakis lead into an eight-point Election Day rout. That example has been cited countless times in recent weeks, with pundits—and pro-Clinton forces—positing that Sen. Obama will be vulnerable to similar caricaturing in the fall as a snooty lefty elitist.
Mr. Dukakis doesn’t buy it. Nor does he seem particularly alarmed by the material (i.e. Jeremiah Wright) that Republicans will have at their disposal in a fall campaign against Sen. Obama. He thinks, in short, that Sen. Obama doesn’t have any electability problem that Sen. Clinton doesn’t have in equal measure.
“Look, she’s got stuff, he’s got stuff,” he said. “Her negatives are higher now than when she started.”
He added, “Everybody knows what [the Republicans] are going to do, no matter which of these candidates it is.
“Bill Clinton was subjected to an even tougher attack campaign than I was in 1992. Nobody remembers that, for two reasons: First, he had learned some lessons from my demise, so he had that unit he called the Defense Department in his campaign that did nothing but deal with it. And secondly, the economy was collapsing. And so even though Bush 1 went after him as hard—or harder—than he went after me, it didn’t register.”
A similar climate prevails in 2008, Mr. Dukakis believes.
“In this case, the economy plus the war,” he said. “Or the war connected to the economy, or vice versa. But you’ve got to be ready for this stuff.”
When the Observer sat down with Mr. Dukakis last summer, he had just begun pushing the candidates—and the Democratic National Committee—to think seriously about a new voter contact model for the fall of 2008. The nomination, he predicted back then, would go to whichever candidate embraced the concept in the primaries. Neither has done so fully, he is quick to report eight months later, but Sen. Obama did in most of the caucus states—something that has made all the difference when you consider the narrow but seemingly insurmountable pledged delegate advantage that Sen. Obama amassed with his landslide wins in those small caucus states.
In conventional terms, Mr. Dukakis said, Sen. Clinton and her team “have run a pretty damn good campaign.
“So how come the other guy’s ahead?” he asked. “Because at least in the caucus states, he and his people understood better than the Clinton people what it takes to win.”
Sen. Obama needs to improve his organization too, Mr. Dukakis said. “Obama hasn’t done anywhere near as good a job at the precinct level in the primary states as I would have expected,” he said. “There was no precinct-based organization in Massachusetts. None.”
“Kitty Dukakis has been contributing to Obama since last spring,” he said, referring to his wife, “an Obama fanatic.” “She’s never received an e-mail saying, ‘Will you be a precinct captain?’ And the guy’s got, what, 1,200,000 contributors—every one of whom, in my judgment, by this time should have been enlisted at putting together a 200,000-precinct, 50-state operation. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened.”
The kind of program Mr. Dukakis has in mind, he said, would take five to six months to develop and implement, meaning the party had better start now if it wants to benefit from it before November. In an ideal world, he suggested, Howard Dean would secure the help of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns right now to begin building, through the D.N.C., a precinct-based system for the fall that would be handed off to the nominee when the contest is over. He believes this could be the difference between victory and defeat for Democrats this fall.
“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.”