Michael Dukakis, three-term Massachusetts governor and former Democratic presidential candidate, gave this year’s Peltason Lecture on the American political process.
During his lecture, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democracy, Dukakis sought to impart lessons learned after decades in public life and to encourage students to become more politically involved.
Dukakis’s primary focus was on what he believes contributed most to his unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush, his failure to stick to his roots as a grassroots campaigner.
Although Professor Paul Wattenberg, whose “Introduction to American Government” class doubled as a venue for the lecture, introduced Gov. Dukakis as the man most associated with being the victim of “negative campaigning and the politics of personal destruction,” Dukakis himself largely ignored the issue. Instead, Dukakis accepted that he had done “a very poor job of responding to the Bush attack campaign” and repeatedly emphasized that this failure was his “fault and nobody else’s.”
Instead Dukakis focused on the fact that although during his gubernatorial campaigns he had strong, precinct-based grassroots organizations backing him, he did not run a strong ground campaign during the general election.
Dukakis had won his first elected post at the local town hall by knocking on doors. He went on to win his seat in Congress and three terms as governor, more than any other person in the Massachusetts’ history, by knocking on doors and campaigning in an intense personal way. It was a formula, Dukakis believes, that not only worked, but was also true to democracy.
However, Dukakis explained that after he became the Democratic Party’s nominee he took a misstep by changing this approach.
“In talking to folks, I thought [I] knew a lot more about winning [the] presidential election than I did,” Dukakis said.
Dukakis’ consultants told him that grassroots campaigning only amounted to unnecessary money and meetings. These individuals told him that while grassroots campaigns might be beneficial for local elections, they did not make a difference for presidential campaigns, which were more shaped by the American mass media.
Dukakis called his decision to follow this advice a terrible mistake.
Dukakis also urged students not to be limited by the boundaries of party lines.
“Stop buying into this red-blue nonsense,” Dukakis said. “There are at least a dozen red states in this country with Democratic governors. Many of them have Democratic legislatures and Democratic congressional delegations.”
He blamed the media for encouraging this misconception and the electorate for sustaining it.
“If you buy into this, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy [and the result is that] we had presidential campaigns that basically took place in six states,” Dukakis said.
This, Dukakis believes, is undemocratic and unduly empathizes the divisions in American society while ignoring the commonalities.
“There are some cultural divides out there … But fundamentally, especially these days, we are all concerned with one thing: Where is this country going? [That concern is] far more unifying … than those so-called cultural differences,” Dukakis said.
The success of the campaign run by then-candidate Barack Obama, Dukakis went on to say, was the first campaign in a long time when a Democrat truly understood the power of a broad grassroots campaign and the fallacy of the red-blue divide. This understanding is the main reason why Obama won over his rivals.
Dukakis believes that President Obama has and will continue to reap benefits of running a grassroots campaign. His campaign recruited thousands of individuals who were able to connect with millions of people. Obama’s supporters were able to form a wide network of involved citizens who will contribute to society.
Dukakis pointed out that while impressive, the Obama campaign still was not a 50-state campaign and added that his hope is that campaigns will not go back to depending on money and media again.
Another major benefit of Obama’s bottoms-up approach is that because of how he raised his funds he does not have a debt to any one particular group.
“[He drew] from a very broad base of relatively moderate contributors. Obama doesn’t owe anybody anything … except for the very best job that he can do. That is a hugely liberating thing,” Dukakis said.
At the end of his lecture, Dukakis stressed the importance of students in today’s government.
“[Students have a] responsibility to get involved … to restore democracy to the way it was supposed to be practiced,” Dukakis said.
Dukakis also noted that such activism is just as enjoyable as it is involving.
“There is nothing like it. There is nothing like the personal fulfillment and satisfaction one gets from being able to make a difference in the lives of fellow citizens,” Dukakis said.
He urged audience members to take advantage of programs like UCDC, the University of California’s Washington, D.C.-based internship program, to get involved in politics. According to Dukakis, this is not difficult to do.
“[Start] working for a candidate you like, whose values you share. You start taking on greater and greater responsibility and the next thing you know you are running for office,” Dukakis said.
Victor Cao, a third-year political science major, stated that Dukakis’s speech encouraged him to serve in public life.
“[Dukakis] put the ball in our court,” Cao said.
Before he left, Dukakis explained that he enjoyed interacting with students.
“I care deeply about this country and I care deeply about the future,” Dukakis said. “You guys are the future; see if I can encourage and inspire as many of you as possible to get into public life as I have [because] it’s a great life. You have to work at it like everything else but there is nothing like it.”
Anam Siddiq contributed to this article.