When John McCain’s campaign made it clear over the weekend that their stretch-run strategy would lean heavily on raising questions about Barack Obama’s personal history and past “associations,” Obama’s communications director provided a simple, almost indifferent reaction to The Washington Post: “This isn’t 1988.”
Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee whose campaign was eviscerated that year by tactics ripped from the same playbook from which Mr. McCain now seems intent on borrowing, tends to agree.
“Well, it happens every time,” the former Massachusetts governor said in an interview on the afternoon of Oct. 6 in his college office. “They’re desperate, they’re slipping, and all of that stuff. So here we go.”
Mr. Dukakis, now 74 and teaching at Northeastern University in Boston (and UCLA for spring semesters), admits that he’s “concerned” about the coming McCain onslaught. But he says that his trepidation is balanced by confidence in Mr. Obama and the team he has assembled.
“This is a much better campaign than I ran in 1988, and I’m impressed,” he said.
Specifically, Mr. Dukakis credits Mr. Obama with responding more swiftly and aggressively to attacks from his opponent and with building sophisticated grass-roots operations in numerous states – two areas in which Mr. Dukakis faults his own campaign (and John Kerry’s in 2004, for that matter) for having been deficient.
More than a year ago, Mr. Dukakis began arguing that this year’s Democratic nominee ought to mount an unprecedented effort to mobilize supporters as block and precinct captains in their own neighborhoods. He envisioned a meaningful grass-roots presence in every city, town and village of every state – more than 200,000 precincts in all. That’s not quite the model that Mr. Obama has embraced, but still, Mr. Dukakis calls his operation “the best thing that’s been put in the field, in my opinion, since John Kennedy.”
“I would have preferred a 50-state operation,” he said, “because there are some states out there like West Virginia and Mississippi and Georgia that are close, that are quite close.
“Mississippi’s only down six or seven. I’ve got some friends down there who say it’s a hell of a lot closer than the numbers say. But if you don’t have an organized effort, people are going to say, ‘Hey, where’s the campaign?’ But certainly in 18 or 20 states, they’ve got some great stuff going. And McCain has nothing. Nothing.”
Mr. Obama’s grass-roots efforts, Mr. Dukakis stressed, are a major reason why he believes that McCain attacks will not register.
“When this stuff starts flying, in addition to doing what [Obama’s campaign has] been doing – which is going up within 24 hours after one of these ads with one of their own – it’s that grass-roots operation that’s your best line of defense against this crap, because they’re out there and they’re talking to people and getting back to them with stuff and so on,” he said.
Republicans are fond of pointing to the many built-in advantages that Mr. Obama enjoys – an unpopular two-term Republican president who presides over an unpopular war and a collapsing economy – and suggesting that the race shouldn’t even be close. The fact that it is, they argue, suggests that voters have serious reservations about Mr. Obama. But Mr. Dukakis isn’t surprised that the polls are (relatively) close.
“Obama has faced some formidable hurdles,” he said. As an example, Mr. Dukakis pointed to a McCain campaign ad from a few weeks ago that sought to portray a tenuous connection between Mr. Obama and Franklin Raines, a former Fannie Mae CEO and the White House budget director under Bill Clinton, as an intimate association.
“That ad with Frank Raines was despicable,” he said. “I mean, what was that anyway? First, it was bald-faced lies. Right? These guys had met once, and Raines is not his housing adviser. Secondly, he put two black guys up there with this older white woman who’s losing her house or whatever. What do you think that’s all about? It isn’t even subtle.”
And yet, Mr. Dukakis pointed out, it was just last week that Mr. McCain essentially ceded Michigan, a state his campaign had targeted early and aggressively, to Mr. Obama.
“I think the interesting thing is that after spending a ton of money in Michigan, he is out of Michigan, which tells you something – maybe – about people’s willingness to believe all of this stuff,” he said.
Then there’s the matter of Sarah Palin, whose name provokes a strong response from Mr. Dukakis.
“I made a ton of mistakes in ’88, needless to say,” he said. “But one of the things I did right was picking my running mate [Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen]. And I think it’s been kind of the model that people have followed ever since.
“I was governor for 12 years, so I picked lots of people, and I liked doing it. I mean, that’s 90 percent of your job – picking good people and building a team and turning them loose. But when it comes to [the vice presidency], the single most important criteria always – I mean it just dwarfs everything else – is: Can this person be a good president if, God forbid, something happens to you? By that criteria, this is a pathetic selection.”