“You Don’t Want the Thing to Turn into a Pissing Contest”: Michael Dukakis on Campaign Jujitsu, Improving Obama’s Communications Strategy, and Where Occupy Should Go Next

by Matt B. on December 23, 2011

Michael Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic nominee for president. He also served as governor of Massachusetts from 1975-1979 and 1983-1991.

On December 6th, I spoke with him about the lessons of ’88, Obama’s communications strategy, and the Occupy movement.

MATT BIEBER: In an interview you did a few years ago with Katie Couric, you described yourself as the first Democrat to face the “Republican attack machine” and said that you and your team –

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Oh, I’m not sure of that. I mean, they’ve been attacking for a long time. But I think what I said, and I meant it, was that I made a terrible mistake assuming I could blow it off – and you can’t. I mean, if you’re going to be the subject of that kind of an attack campaign, you’ve got to have a carefully thought-out strategy for dealing with it – one that preferably makes it a character issue on the attacker.

That’s easier said than done, but I had done it previously in gubernatorial races. If you say to me today, “What were you thinking?” I’m not sure. I mean, I’d run a very positive campaign in the primary, and the country, I thought, was tired of all the polarization we’d had under Reagan. But I think the clear lesson from ‘88 is if the other guy is going to come at you, you’ve got to be ready for that and you just can’t assume that folks are going to dismiss it.

MB: I’m curious about how that experience affected your perception of the country or your fellow citizens.

MD: You know, I’m not one these guys who blames others. I mean I thought it was my own fault for – and incidentally, and it’s not his fault, but I remember Mario Cuomo early on advising me. “Don’t pay any attention to this stuff,” he said. And about four days before the election, we were campaigning together in Queens and he said, “That was the worst advice I ever gave you.” [Laughs]

We all learned from ’88. I mean, Clinton was the subject of an even tougher attack campaign than I was. And he had a little unit in his campaign of about ten people – some of whom had worked for me – and they used to call themselves “The Defense Department.” And all they did was deal with Bush’s attacks – every day, I mean, on top of them, anticipating them.

And unfortunately, you’ve got to do that. Now, people have been attacking each other politically since the founding of the Republic. It was brutal back in the early part of the 1790’s, 1800’s, and nobody was more vilified than Abraham Lincoln – you know, brutal stuff. But it wasn’t electronic and that makes a difference – didn’t have quite the impact, I suspect. But, in any event, it was just a big mistake and I made it, so…

MB: It sounds like you think of everything that happened within the context of the political process and the media machine. But after going through that, did you think differently at all about your fellow citizens? Was there every a point when you thought to yourself, “How did these folks get taken in by this stuff?”

MD: No, no, no. Look, I mean, if you let your opponent attack you and you say nothing about it, or you don’t respond, you don’t correct the record – and then better still point out for example that the most liberal furlough program in America was the Reagan-Bush furlough program in the federal prison system, which Bush didn’t even know – now if you don’t say that, don’t be surprised that some people believe it. You don’t have to win by 50 percentage points; all you got to win is by one more than 50. Ultimately the fault was mine in doing that, and nobody will ever make that mistake again, particularly on the Democratic side of things.

MB: In that same interview with Katie Couric, you said that you’ve got to fight fire with fire, and I’m wondering –

MD: Well, if you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it skillfully and effectively, because you don’t want to turn the thing into a pissing contest in which in two weeks, people forget who started it. So, it’s more than that.

When [Ed] King and I ran against each other the second time for governor – he had beaten me in ’78 – and I was back running, the great rematch in ’82. He started coming at me with paid television, non-stop from February, and it was all about the fact that I had signed the biggest tax increase in history while I was governor the first time, which I had. I mean, there’s nothing untrue about that.

Fortunately for me, he’d run a pretty sleazy administration, and although I couldn’t match it dollar for dollar…I started coming back at him and I said in effect, I said, “Look, he may not have raised your taxes but you’re paying a huge corruption tax as a result of this guy.” And the corruption tax became my way of responding, and it was very effective. I mean, you get the point; we took his attack over taxes and basically flicked it back at him, reminding people every day that this guy ran a pretty sleazy administration.

And nobody, I think, faulted me for responding along those lines because in point of fact I was essentially flipping his attack back on him. And I beat him decisively and went on to win big in the final. That’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about an effective strategy, which not only blunts the attacks but turns them into a character issue on the guy who’s doing it.

MB: So, what was different about the presidential? Why the different strategy?

MD: Well, it was the presidency…As I say, I thought the country was tired of all the back and forth which we had under Reagan. And that’s where a lot of the polarization started, you know. I mean, there’s no question about it. And Gingrich kind of added to it when he was Speaker.

I’ve run a very positive campaign in the primary, very successfully. You know, I’d started about 1% of the polls and won the thing against a pretty formidable field. Gore was in it, Gephardt was in it, Biden was in it – I mean, you know, what an interesting bunch of folks running. And I’m a positive guy, anyway. You know, I understand politics is a contact sport, but I’ve always been a positive guy, kind of emphasizing the positive, “Let’s get going,” you know, that kind of stuff – working together and stuff.

Now, in retrospect, it was just a colossal mistake. But at the time, I and at least a few other people [laughs] thought it made sense. Obviously, it didn’t.

MB: Do you think the kind of guy that you were as a politician –unabashedly liberal, blue collar, rode the T to work – has that model been eclipsed by another kind of politician? Could you have been successful in today’s political environment?

MD: Oh, yeah, I think so – or somebody like me. Sure, you know. I think so. Now, look, you got to focus. I mean, my theme always was strongly economic. Not that I’m not interested in other stuff, but when I ran for governor here, it was all about genuine economic opportunity for every single person in this state. No matter who they are, where they come from, what the color of their skin. That was my theme, and I went at it hard. And it was my theme nationally.

Now, of course, your opponent is going to try to knock you off by emphasizing other things – you know, death penalty, tax increases and so on and so forth – and you’ve got to understand that and you’ve got to be able to deal with it effectively. And I seemed to be able to do that except once, when I was 40 points ahead with five weeks to go in the polls and we all kind of figured it was going to be easy. And King knocked me off, much to the astonishment of everybody – maybe him, too.

But most of the issues that guys like me are concerned about are issues that unite people. Now, how you frame them and express them is important. I am the last guy in the world to advise Obama about how to communicate—he’s a far better communicator than I am—particularly given my track record in ’88. But we’re losing on the health care issue, when we ought to be winning five-to-one. Why? Because 90% of the people who don’t have health insurance in this country are working or members of working families – they’re not loafing, they’re not sitting around, they’re working, some of them two or three jobs. No healthcare. No health insurance. And when I put my universal healthcare bill through the Legislature in ’88, it was a hell of a lot better than the one we got.

I had a working person or working family next to me in every one of what must have been 200 press events I did around the issue, emphasizing that they’re working people, they got a family and their families are going to have decent affordable healthcare in this state. And [in 2009 and 2010] I think that should’ve been the Democratic theme, both out of the White House and out of the Congress.

You know, 54 million uninsured people in this country, 90% are working or members of working families. And if you want to take a poll tomorrow and ask the American people: Should working people and their families have decent affordable healthcare? I don’t have to tell you what the numbers are – it’s 95% say yes.

So why haven’t we been saying this? Beats me! I don’t know, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been losing on the healthcare issue when we should be winning. We’ve been talking about insurance reform and all this kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean anything to people. It’s whether or not folks who are working and their families are going to have decent, affordable healthcare.

So, it’s not enough to have these sentiments. I mean, you got to be able to express them effectively. I was able to do that pretty well during my political career but not so well in the summer and fall of 1988, unfortunately.

MB: Let’s take this up a level. If you were President Obama’s campaign manager, what kind of narrative would you be trying to create, both about the president’s record and about the Republican opposition?

MD: Same thing I said to you. It’s all about genuine economic opportunity for every single American – for every single American – and I’d just hammer the hell out of it. And a lot of things tie into that – you know, the healthcare thing. What are we talking about here? Healthcare for working people and their families, for God’s sake. You get the point here – you can tie a lot of stuff into that theme. But I think – particularly at a time when we’re hurting badly economically – you just got to keep coming back to that over and over and over again.

And that’s what I did as governor, running for governor, and tried to do that in ’88 but unfortunately let the opposition start raising doubts in people’s minds because of these other issues, which I just didn’t deal with effectively.

MB: What’s your take on the Occupy Movement?

MD: My hat’s off to these kids for doing what they’re doing. They’ve totally changed the terms of the debate. It’s now time to take this up several notches. Are you familiar with the teach-in we did here at Northeastern a few weeks ago?

MB: I heard of it but didn’t attend.

MD: Go online and take a look at it. I want to see those teach-ins happening on hundreds of campuses all over the country, with greater and greater intensity as we get into 2012. I think these kids have done a great job, and it is now time to get you guys [students] deeply and actively involved. I mean, you got a legitimate basis for complaint here. You’re working hard; your families are sacrificing. What are you going do when you get out?
And, you know, I remember the Vietnam War teach-ins. They had a profound effect on what happened to this country, in terms of our conduct of that war, and I think you guys have an enormous opportunity here to do the same.

So, what we’re trying to do, having done it here – if you go on the website, you’ll get a sense; we got the program, format, speakers, their slides, all of this kind of stuff – is to use this as a model for what I hope will be happening on hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of campuses all over the country. So that it isn’t just a bunch of kids in tents freezing during the winter. I mean, this thing has got to expand now and encompass more people, more places, and nobody has a more legitimate beef about the state of the economy these days than the young people who are going to school.

MB: There’s actually a similar teach-in here at Harvard tomorrow.

MD: Really?

MB: Yeah, in the Science Center.

MD: I teach at UCLA in the wintertime, so as soon as I get out there, we’ll see what we can do to organize a whole flock of these things at the [University of California campuses] all over the state.

MB: That’s great.

MD: It’s a natural step up now to take what the Occupy folks have done and really, really, you know, go big on campuses around the country.

MB: My sense is that the movement hasn’t gotten particularly fair-minded media coverage, and I’m curious: for someone who has been through the media gauntlet, how could Occupy – and maybe the expanding Occupy that you’re envisioning – more effectively communicate their vision in a relatively hostile environment?

MD: I’m not sure I agree with you. I’ve been astonished at the amount of coverage that the Occupy folks have been getting and the fact that the media has stuck with them. Now, look, over time it isn’t all going to be peaches and cream. There’ll be critics and there’ll be this and there’ll be that, which is another reason why I think we’ve got to take this up several notches and really start hitting the campuses hard. Forget about the camps now; let’s just have a good discussion about the state of the economic world and what to do about it. But on the whole they totally changed the terms of debate. Nobody’s talking about the Tea Party anymore, right?

  • Keith McHenry

    I visited Michael Dukakis several times when he was running for president. It had to be one of the strangest things I have ever done and changed my impression of politics.  He stopped in to visit a woman I was working for at about 4:00 in the afternoon on week days always by himself. He was governor of Massachusetts at the time and I found it interesting he could just hang out for 20 or 30 minutes and chat.  It turned out that the woman I worked for was in trouble with the Italian government for a number of really illegal things. The other details I learned made me realized there was a lot more to these visits then met the eye and it really freaked me out. I sure hope America is past that type of politics now. I would agree with most of the things Michael Dukakis is saying in this interview. His final comments on the media coverage of the Occupations and Tea Party are spot on. I have been involved since April in organizing and providing food and logistical support for the occupations. Thanks Michael Dukakis!

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