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Top of the Ticket—Then and Now (Video)

By Sherri Kimmel


In his corner office at Northeastern University in Boston, Michael Dukakis ’55 reflects on his time as a presidential contender. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

In late summer, former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president Michael Dukakis ’55 met with Bulletin editor Sherri Kimmel in his office at Northeastern University, where, for 21 years, he’s taught classes in public policy, health policy, state and local government, and public management. Winters find him teaching public policy at sunny UCLA. In mid-August, his opinion on the current presidential campaign, particularly Gov. Romney, began appearing in the national media, including MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. In the Bulletin interview, excerpts of which appear below, he talked about his days as a presidential contender and his outlook on this year’s campaign.

What are some of the challenges that you encountered as a candidate in ’88 that President Obama faces today?

I don’t think I did a very good job on the organizational side of things. He did a fine job in ’08. But it’s always difficult the second time around. He needs that kind of grassroots effort. He’s obviously facing money problems that I didn’t face, in terms of millions that are pouring in the door. He’s certainly facing an attack campaign, which I also faced, and really didn’t get ready for, and wasn’t prepared for. I don’t think it’s a problem with him. I mean, look, he’s been trashed for the last three years, so nothing new. He certainly knows that you’ve got to be ahead of the curve, not behind it, when it comes to this attack stuff.

So what do you see as the greatest impediments to his success, and how does he overcome them?

The fact that the economy has not recovered as rapidly as we would have hoped and he had hoped. Put another way, if we were down at 6 and a half or 7 percent and the economy was gradually moving towards full employment, I don’t think Romney would have a prayer. So that’s the issue.

Would you predict an outcome for the fall?

I think the president’s going to win, but this is going to be a very tough fight. One of the things that the Democrats have to do is get that Romney Massachusetts record on the economy out there, because it’s so dismal.

Looking back 24 years ago to your time as the Democratic nominee, are you glad to have had that experience or not?

I’m glad to have had the experience, but winning is a hell of a lot better than losing, and I’ve had both experiences. Look, I ran hard. I wanted, obviously, to be president of the United States. I thought I could make a real contribution. I kiddingly say these days, “I owe you all an apology. If I’d beaten Bush I, you would have never heard of Bush II. We wouldn’t be in this mess. So blame me for this.” But it was obviously disappointing. And it was a winnable race. But I made a decision early on that I was not going to respond to the Bush attacks, and it just turned out to be a colossal mistake. You can’t do that.

And I guess Kerry didn’t respond either in 2004.

Same deal.

What is it about you Massachusetts guys?

I don’t know, we’re positive guys. I think in both cases, we doubted very much that these attacks would have an impact. But if we’ve learned anything, as John did, it’s that any attack, if continued long enough, can have an impact. You’ve got to be ready for them, and you’ve got to be able to not only blunt the attack but turn it into a character issue on the guy that’s doing it. Neither one of us did that.

Do you sit back sometimes and see the things that have evolved in this country since ’88 and think, “If I’d been president …”?

Every once in a while. But look, you can’t relive the race over and over again. I ran a great primary victory and a lousy final defeat. So that’s reality, but it doesn’t mean you withdraw from the field. I’m deeply involved. I want very much to see the president re-elected. I’m working hard for Elizabeth Warren [in her run for Senate]. I was out knocking on doors for her two days ago, and I’m going to continue to do that. So I’m fully engaged, and I love my teaching, and I love the opportunity I now have to try to inspire young people to get into this public [service] business.

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