Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis knows a thing or two about running for president. The 1988 Democratic presidential nominee – still as engaged and vocal as ever – discusses this year’s race with AC360° Associate Producer Jack Gray.
Governor, four months out and polls show Sen. Obama in the lead. Any words of caution for him and his supporters?
Yeah these poll numbers are meaningless, as only the guy you are talking to knows. This race has only just begun and one of the things that you discover is that the final is a whole new ball game. I mean the fact that you’ve been out campaigning for a year, a year and a half, two years is not meaningless – it means something – but now it’s you and the other guy, and one of you is going to be the most important political leader in the world. So every day is another battle and that’s where we’ve just begun, frankly.
The VP guessing game, do you have any favorites?
No I don’t have any favorites. You’ve got to go through a very careful process. If you do it right you’re going to pick the right person. It’s one of the things I did right in 1988 – a lot of things I did wrong – and he’s going through that process. And I think people are paying a lot more attention to this than they used to. In the old days it didn’t make much difference. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Because remember this is the first real presidential decision you’re making. If you win this person is going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And it better be someone who above all is capable in being a first-rate president.
Would putting Sen. Clinton on the ticket be a good or bad move?
Well that’s a judgment that only he and she can make. One of the things you find out as you go through this process, Jack, is that a lot of the people you consider seriously decide for whatever reason that they don’t want to be considered.
If he asked her she couldn’t say no, could she?
Well, I asked some people who said no. It wasn’t because they didn’t like me, they just decided at that point in their career they didn’t want to make that move. I can tell you if you do this process right you’re going to come up with the right person.
How do you “do the process right?”
First you pick someone in whom you have great confidence to head it up for you. Now Obama has already had a problem with that – Jim Johnson is gone. With me it was Paul Brountas my campaign chairman – with Clinton it was Warren Christopher – people with good judgment, who know what they’re doing. We reached out all over the place – invited suggestions from anywhere and everywhere…finally narrowed it down to four: Glenn, Bentsen, Gephardt and Gore... when it was all over not that the other three weren’t very good people, but the logical choice to me was Bentsen. And he was a great running mate, by the way.
If Sen. Obama picks a woman other than Sen. Clinton does he risk irritating her supporters?
I don’t think so. I don’t sense – despite all that poll stuff right after the contest when he clinched, my sense is that the vast majority of Democrats are going to be with him and engaged. And I know they’re reaching out very aggressively to the Clinton people.
What about an experienced Washington player like Joe Biden or Chris Dodd – would that run counter to his message of change?
Not necessarily. Of course remember he is a federal official. In my case, Jack, it’s not that I was necessarily looking absolutely for someone with Washington experience. But it seemed to me as a guy who had spent much of his time at the state level – it was important, not just for political purposes, but if I won, to have a vice president who was a very skilled federal person. I think Carter felt that way when he picked Mondale. I certainly felt that way when I picked Bentsen. In this case, however, Obama is already a national player, so there might be other considerations. Someone with extensive experience in foreign policy, national security maybe would be well worth considering. Above all else, the single most important consideration is very simple: Would this person be an excellent president if God forbid something happened to me? Everything else pales in comparison.
Do you buy the notion that Obama needs to make this about the economy and McCain needs to make it about national security?
No, I think Obama has to make it about national security and the economy because the two are related. I mean we’re spending close to $3 billion a week on this stupid war. That is money that can’t be invested here, that can’t be invested in the crumbling infrastructure, health care, schools, and all of those things. I think Obama should take the so-called national security issue directly to McCain, who has been a supporter of this war from the beginning, and tie it at the same time to our failure to build the economy that we ought to have here.. So I think the two are related. I wouldn’t separate them at all.
In 2000 the key state was Florida, in 2004 it was Ohio. This year people are talking about Michigan, Ohio again.
Hey you want to organize those states to the teeth, but you also want to organize every other state to the teeth. And there’s no reason why he can’t do it. I mean he’s got close to two million contributors, Jack. Contributors! And there are only 200,000 precincts. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to put that operation together right now in every single state without exception – it’s all volunteer driven; the internet is now a great organizing tool. I’m not talking about phone banks. I’m talking about organization at the precinct level – precinct captains are out there knocking on doors, connecting with people personally and staying with them right through the campaign and that’s easy. That’s something we must do. Fortunately they understand this and they’re doing it, but we’ve got to move on it. We’ve only got four months to go.
In 1988 you didn’t have that organization?
Well we had it in the primary and it helped me win the nomination. And then we listened to folks (laughs) who presumably knew something about running for the presidency – and he said well in the finals it’s all about media, it’s about money. And, mea culpa. We, too, had staff in every one of the fifty states but, with some exceptions, we really didn’t put the emphasis on it. One of the reasons I feel so strongly is because we didn’t do it as intensively as we should have in every one of the states. And Obama has the capacity and the intensity to do this better than anyone that I can remember since Jack Kennedy.
Should Sen. Obama take any lessons from your former Lieutenant Governor, John Kerry?
John, unfortunately, did not do the grass roots stuff. And so it ended up being another one of these Ohio/Florida deals. There is no reason why Democrats ought to be conceding one single state, Jack. And buying into this red/blue stuff is ridiculous. There must be 13 so-called red states with Democratic governors, so why are they red? I mean it makes no sense at all and many of them of their congressional delegations have now gone Democrat. So we’re making a serious mistake in buying into this mythology and that’s all it is.
Can you believe that it was twenty years ago that you were in the thick of this?
How have things changed since then?
(Laughs) In my opinion, not withstanding technology and the rest of it, fundamentally it comes down to what I’m talking about. I think the conditions for a victory are very good, but no one is going to hand this to us. We’ve got to go out there and win it.
And finally how about those Red Sox, going all the way this year?
I’m a little worried. I’m a little worried. Aren’t you? Looking at Manny pinch-hitting Sunday was not pleasant.