FLORIDA, July 30, 2012 — We are squarely in the midst of an election year that many pundits expect to be one of the most negative and expensive in American history. To understand how we got here, a we should look back to 1988.
That was the year of our first truly modern election. The sort of negative ads that we see today descend directly from those which ran during the Bush-Dukakis race. Many contemporary voting blocs were formed or solidified in ‘88 as well, not the least of which is the Religious Right.
Mike Dukakis is remembered mostly for his bid for the presidency. However, there is far more to his life and career than that. After serving three terms as the governor of Massachusetts, and as a state legislator before that, he became a noted academic in the field of public policy.
In a candid interview, Dukakis discussed not only his personal story, but the most pressing subjects of our day, ranging from national defense to Citizens United.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. While you were the governor of Massachusetts, finding common ground was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?
Governor Mike Dukakis: Yes, it is polarized, but we have had worse. Nothing today compares with the McCarthy era, or, for that matter, the fundamental divisions in the country over the Vietnam war. I never found it difficult to work with Republicans when I was in state government, because we had Republicans here like Elliot Richardson and Frank Sargent with whom we shared common values and common assumptions.
Sadly, those moderate Republicans are virtually gone from the Republican Party, and many of them have become Democrats or, like Mitt Romney, have turned themselves inside out to accommodate the Tea Party. When Mike Castle lost the Republican primary for the Senate in Delaware, that was the death knell for moderate Republicans in the U.S., at least for the time being.
Cotto: What was the greatest challenge of your governorship? What was its best reward?
Gov. Dukakis: Getting Massachusetts out of the depths of economic recession in 1975 was my toughest challenge. Being governor of this state is the best job in the world, and being in a position to make a real difference in the lives of my fellow citizens is the most fulfilling life I could possibly imagine. That’s why I teach these days in the hope that I can inspire my students to pursue careers in public service.
Cotto: Many point to the 1988 presidential election as a turning point in American politics. It still stands as a watermark for negative advertising, and opened the floodgates for theoconservative advocacy within the Republican Party. How do you reflect on the tone of that campaign?
Gov. Dukakis: It wasn’t pleasant, but I made the decision not to respond to the Bush attack campaign, and it turned out to be the dumbest thing I ever did. Needless to say, if you want to win the Presidency, you can’t stand mute while the other guy is beating you up.
Cotto: Running for president is an undertaking so massive that few of us can fully comprehend it. What did you learn from your candidacy? Overall, was it a positive experience?
Gov. Dukakis: Running for the presidency is both the toughest and the best thing you will ever do in American politics. Clearly, however, winning is better than losing. If I had beaten Bush One, we would have never heard of Bush Two, and we wouldn’t be struggling to get out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression— something that would never have happened had Al Gore not been robbed of the Presidency by the Supreme Court.
Cotto: Due to the Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans have become nervous about the influence which money plays in politics. Do you share these concerns? Or is Citizens United merely formalizing what has gone on under the table, so to speak, for generations?
Gov. Dukakis: Citizens United is one of three or four worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, decided by a majority that calls itself “strict constructionist.” Where in the Constitution does it say that money is speech or, worse still, that corporate money is speech? Congress has been regulating campaign contributions and expenditures for over a hundred years and so have state legislatures. When did that become unconstitutional?
As John McCain said, if money is speech, then 99% of us are disenfranchised, and the corrupting influence of corporate money is, as the Montana Supreme Court said, a historic fact in U.S. political history.
Cotto: America remains caught in the Great Recession’s clutches. How do you think that our country can reclaim its economic vitality?
Gov. Dukakis: You can’t get out of a recession with a policy of economic austerity. We tried that once under Herbert Hoover and it produced the worst economic crisis in American history. So why do people like Ryan and Romney think it will work this time?
As the Greeks say, “pathima mathima.” Things happen, and you are supposed to learn from them.
Cotto: During complicated times like these, a robust national security policy is essential. While America can continue to build stronger relationships with proven allies, more should be done to prevent against domestic terrorism as well. What are your opinions on this most challenging matter?
Gov. Dukakis: On the contrary, we have a badly bloated defense budget which is still trying to fight the cold war when the terrorist threat has little or nothing to do with carrier groups and ABM missiles in Poland. We have over eight hundred American bases all over the world. For what? And what is all this paranoia about China? They didn’t invade Iraq, we did. Everything we buy these days seems to come from China, and everything we borrow seems to come from there as well.
If they and the Filipinos have a problem with an island in the South China Sea, why don’t we urge them to go to the World Court and resolve it? Putting 2500 Marines in Australia doesn’t seem to me to make a lot of sense.
Great duty for the Marines. Australia is a great country with great looking women who love Yanks, but what does that have to do with the terrorist threat?
Cotto: Over the last several years, mass movements such as Occupy and the Tea Party have made quite an impact on the political process. Each is largely a result of the recession and popular anger at government malfeasance. Do you believe that both will maintain their strength in the long run? Comprehensively speaking, are these movements as different from one another as pundits tend to claim?
Gov. Dukakis: Anytime the economy goes into a deep slump as it did under Bush, you are going to get a lot of unhappy people, and while I think the President has done an impressive job of keeping us from going over the cliff, as we almost did, it won’t be easy to get us back to where we were when Bill Clinton left office: 23 million new jobs, 4.2 percent unemployment, and the first two back to back budget surpluses in half a century.
That’s why it is important that the President be reelected. Mitt Romney was a disaster on the economic front as governor of Massachusetts, we were 47th out of 50th on job creation during his administration, and we certainly don’t want that kind of leadership in the White House.
Cotto: Across the political spectrum as of late, libertarianism has emerged with a vengeance. Specifically in the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are posing a serious challenge to the establishment. Do you believe that libertarianism is a viable philosophy for governing? What do you think about the Ron Paul movement?
Gov. Dukakis: I don’t think the American people support libertarianism although there has always been a minority that do, and some of the things that libertarians support like expanded civil rights and liberties are good things. But if you believe, as most Americans do, that working people and their families need and deserve decent and affordable health care, you aren’t going to get it with libertarianism.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be one of America’s most well known political figures. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Gov. Dukakis: I was the son of Greek immigrants who had the great good fortune to have terrific parents, good schools and a chance to serve in public life. And I have been blessed with a great wife, three fine kids and eight grand kids who are a joy.
Who could ask for more than that?
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