The (Strong) Case for Dukakis

One of the more fascinating byproducts of the political upheaval unleashed by Ted Kennedy’s death could be an unexpected—and brief—return to the public stage for Michael Dukakis.

The former Massachusetts governor’s name has been widely circulated this week as a possible interim successor to the late senator—someone who would hold the seat until next January, when the state’s voters will choose a new senator in a special election.

It’s been more than 18 years since Dukakis took the “lone walk” out of the Massachusetts State House and into political retirement. Back then, he didn’t have much choice. He’d come home from his 1988 presidential campaign intent on pouring himself into state business, but almost nothing went right. A souring economy and gaping budget deficit conspired to wreck his popularity, so running for reelection in 1990 wasn’t an option, and since then he’s largely contented himself in academia.

But if ever there was a time for a comeback, this is it.

Already, Phil Johnston, who chaired the Massachusetts Democratic Party for seven years and who also served as a cabinet secretary under Dukakis, has floated the former governor’s name, and with good reason. If there’s going to be an interim senator, there really is no more logical choice.

At 75, Dukakis long ago exhausted his political ambitions—a prerequisite for any interim senator, who would be expected to swear off running for a full term. As a former governor and national figure, he’d bring stature to the role. Plus, health care policy—the major issue the interim senator will have to address—has long been a passion of Dukakis’. As governor, he actually steered a universal coverage plan through the Massachusetts Legislature, although it was later nullified by his successor, William Weld.

Perhaps most importantly, Dukakis has a well-earned reputation for rectitude. As a national candidate, he was ridiculed as cold, technocratic and aloof—but no one ever accused him of dishonesty, or of abusing his gubernatorial powers and privileges.

And his political retirement has been unusual for someone of his accomplishments. Instead of cashing in with a lucrative job with a law firm or lobbying outfit, he has devoted himself to teaching—and not as some figurehead professor who teaches one seminar a year. He’s a full-time professor who walks (or takes the T) to his small, cramped office on the third floor of Northeastern University’s political science department, where he answers his own phone and advises antsy students on what courses to add and drop.

It is this post-retirement humility that may be Dukakis’ best recommendation for the job. After all, Governor Deval Patrick will only be in position to appoint a senator if the Democratic Legislature agrees to change the current Senate succession law, which right now calls for Kennedy’s seat to remain vacant until the January special election. Republicans (and many in the media) will scream and howl if Democrats go forward with a law change; appointing someone with Dukakis’ integrity could be an effective response to their outrage.

Still, there are several ifs standing in the way of a swearing-in for Senator Dukakis.

The first is the simple matter of whether he’d even be interested. My attempts to reach Dukakis at his office and by email on Thursday were unsuccessful, and as of this writing, other media outlets apparently had no luck either.

Then there’s the question of whether the change in the succession law, which Kennedy personally advocated in a letter to Patrick that was released last week, will actually go through. When Patrick announced on Wednesday that he would sign the change, most assumed that the issue was settled, since Democrats enjoy ridiculous majorities in both the State House and Senate.

“I have a pretty strong feeling that they will do it,” Johnston told The New York Times. “The Republicans will say, ‘Isn’t this terrible,’ but the Democrats have nothing to apologize for as long as the temporary appointee is not a candidate for the permanent seat.”

Others in Massachusetts aren’t so sure. The biggest obstacle, perhaps: Therese Murray, the president of the State Senate. Murray, a Democrat (like just about everyone on Beacon Hill), has been publicly frosty to the idea of changing the law, signaling only that she could be persuaded to go along with it.

With Murray actively on board, the plan would easily clear the Senate, where Democrats control 35 of the 40 seats. And with House Speaker Robert DeLeo apparently fine with it and Patrick ready to sign it, it would then become law. But if Murray is ambivalent, she could slow the process considerably—and, thus, kill the plan.

Her reservations may be a mix of political and personal factors. Politically, some Democrats are nervous about next year’s elections. Patrick’s standing is shaky (a poll this week showed him trailing a potential G.O.P. candidate) and the Legislature just endorsed a sales tax hike. So why take a chance with a law change that voters may see as transparently political in nature?

Personally, Murray was a top Massachusetts backer of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year, and, some suggest, remains miffed at Kennedy for his pivotal pre-Super Tuesday endorsement of Barack Obama. She also has a history with Patrick, another early Obama backer: In 2006, Murray supported then-Attorney General Tom Reilly over Patrick in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The House and Senate aren’t planning to consider the law change until mid-September. The do-it-for-Ted urgency that is now fueling the push for the change may have died down by then, and Murray may have more latitude to stall. And the longer she can stall, the more pointless the idea of an interim senator will become, with the special election fast approaching.

A key factor will be the status of health care legislation in the U.S. Senate, where an additional Democratic vote from Massachusetts could be crucial. But just this week, Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold expressed doubt that there’d be any vote before the end of the year.

“If people genuinely believe that the health care vote is going to take place this year, I think there will be a lot more support for changing the law,” said Michael Goldman, a senior consultant at the Government Insight Group in Boston and a longtime Democratic operative.

If it does go through, Dukakis probably won’t be the only name Patrick considers. For instance, if Kennedy’s widow, Victoria Reggie, were interested in the interim appointment, Patrick would surely give it to her. The name of Scott Harshbarger, 67, a former attorney general who narrowly lost the 1998 gubernatorial race, has also been mentioned.

But here is no potential appointee who can match Dukakis’ resume, stature and reputation. If the stars align, he may soon get what he was denied nearly two decades a go: a chance to end his political career on a high note.