Cool Hand Duke

by Morton Kondracke | August 30, 1987

Michael Dukakis’s message to the Democratic Party is neither epic nor apocalyptic. He is not promising, like Joe Biden, to restore John F. Kennedy's spiritual days of glory or, like Richard Gephardt, to save the nation from impending economic serfdom to the Japanese and South Koreans. Dukakis tells audiences: I can win, I am competent, and I care.

Besides the message, Dukakis has money, brains, a talented staff, a successful record as governor of Massachusetts (though not quite as spectacularly successful as he claims), a confident television style, the attention and respect of the political press and professional politicians, and the ardent backing of his state and his fellow Greek Americans, an esteemed ethnic group.

If his presidential campaign has flaws, they lie in his lack of charisma and in doubts that people in the rest of the country may have about Massachusetts liberalism. Mike Dukakis is no Ted Kennedy. He's not a big spender or a wastrel—but he's no crowd pleaser, either. His foreign policy is pure McGovern, but that's a problem for the general election, not the primaries. So the flaws may be self-canceling instead of fatal. The bottom-line question will be: Can an earnest technocrat sell Kennedy School liberalism in Texas?

Richard Gephardt and his campaign manager. Bill Carrick, are trying to make Massachusetts the main issue of the campaign right now. Even though there are seven candidates in the Democratic field (and maybe eight if Representative Pat Schroeder declares), Gephardt's aim is to make this into a two-man race at the outset. Dukakis is the chosen foil because the Gephardt people believe he won't fly in the South on Super Tuesday.

So Gephardt has declared Dukakis to be a "regional candidate," based on his opposition to an oil import fee (higher oil prices help Texas and hurt the Northeast) and on his opposition to protectionism. Gephardt's charge also plays into the resentment that Iowans feel for the prosperity of the "bicoastal" economy, and Gephardt adds to the effect by claiming that Massachusetts' economic "miracle" is heavily based on defense spending, especially Star Wars research, which is anathema in strongly pacifist and isolationist Iowa.

Before their August 8 debate in Iowa, Dukakis had not been very skillful in handling Gephardt's charges. He got huffy, accusing Gephardt of being personal and negative, as though candidates for president were never supposed to challenge one another. He also sounded sanctimonious, writing the other candidates a private letter assuring them that he (unlike Gephardt) did not intend to exclude them. He got defensive, assuring Iowans that only five percent of Massachusetts jobs are defense-related and that he thinks Star Wars is a waste of money. And very occasionally he jibed back that Gephardt might be the regional candidate for favoring oil fees, protectionism, and agricultural production quotas.

If he expects to get nominated and elected, Dukakis had better get used to rough-and-tumble politics. One thing Americans expect from their president is toughness under pressure. But Dukakis has tried to avoid the rough and tumble in Massachusetts (where his governing method is sometimes called "consenso-mania") and so far in the presidential campaign.

His basic message is positive. In the I-can-win part, he reminds voters that though Democrats control a majority of the governorships, state legislatures, the House, and the Senate, they have lost four out of the last five presidential elections, and would have lost all five but for Watergate. And why? Because, he says, they lost the confidence of the country on economic issues. "The unique strength I bring to the campaign," he says, "is that I am a candidate who knows the economic issues and is committed to economic opportunity and good jobs at good wages for the people of this country. I am a full-employment Democrat."

In the I-am-competent part, he says, "I speak to you as somebody who is the governor of a state that 12 years ago was an economic and financial basket case with the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, the biggest state deficit in the country. I'm the nation's expert on Republican deficits, let me tell you. And the fact that last month the unemployment rate in my state was 3.2 percent gives you some sense of just how much we can do if we have a president who … "

And then he proceeds to describe himself as he would like to be seen: as one who (1) "understands these economic issues," i.e., has a brain, is no note-card reader; (2) "is committed to economic opportunity," i.e., has a moral sense about people's welfare; (3) "is willing to build a partnership between Washington and the states and communities, business and labor and the educational community and good citizens everywhere," i.e., believes in the value of community endeavor; and (4) "understands that you have to invest some public resources in economic development... and you have to combine those resources with private initiative." That is, Dukakis is a government activist, but also a believer in private enterprise.

He spends time telling about his roots too: his father came to America penniless and unable to speak English, but seven years later was admitted to Harvard Medical School, later to become Boston's most prominent Greek American obstetrician. His mother was the first Greek woman from Haverill, Massachusetts, ever to go to college. The subliminal message here is that he knows the value of hard work and America's promise of opportunity and probably has a high I.Q. That he does. He was Phi Beta Kappa at Swarthmore, cum laude at Harvard Law.

His Greek heritage is a boon in fund-raising and apparently no handicap at all in campaigning. Dukakis raised a record $4.2 million for the first quarter of the campaign, beating Biden by $1 million and Gephardt by $2 million. Fifteen percent of Dukakis's money came directly from Greek-Americans, but finance chairman Bob Farmer says that "Greeks are tremendous fund-raisers. They are usually successful and well-liked, so every one of them can get several friends to contribute." Dukakis says that he has never encountered any anti-Greek prejudice, and certainly none was ever directed toward Spiro Agnew, though it remains to be seen whether the whole country is ready for an ethnic president and a Jewish first lady.

Dukakis's demonstration of fund-raising prowess has helped his overall political credibility enormously. In Iowa and elsewhere. Democrats seem to be hungering for a winner. They are looking for ideological congeniality, as always, but also electability. One woman activist at a rally in Cedar Rapids said, for example, "I like Paul Simon a lot, but we can't sell him—the bow tie, the glasses. He looks old-line. We need somebody younger, maybe even a little slicker, even to get the older crowd." The rap in Iowa right now is that Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt are the best organized, but that Dukakis, who started late, is gaining fast. Biden, who started early enough, is doing nothing in the polls and is gaining the coffee shop reputation as a "bigmouth, not serious."

Dukakis’s Iowa rallies are well attended, even on steamy Saturdays, due partly to curiosity and partly to good organization. Iowa is crawling these days with young politicos, 25 to 35 years old, who are in charge of getting to know practically every potential caucus attendee in a congressional district and turning out a crowd when their candidate appears nearby. Dukakis has many of the best of them—some who took deep salary cuts from the state government of Massachusetts and others who transferred over when the Gary Hart campaign collapsed.

Besides his fund-raising record, Dukakis's ability to attract key former Hart aides, including political director Paul Tully at the national level and Theresa Vilmain in Iowa, is a major boost for his political credibility. So are poll ratings, which show him running just behind Jesse Jackson nationwide. And as political columnist Jack Germond puts it, "That Michael does have timing. Just when everybody's paying attention to morals on account of Gary Hart, he comes along, a straight arrow. And just when Ronald Reagan is making competency an issue, he's offering competency."

In Massachusetts, Dukakis is legendary for his unostentatious manner. He lives in his own home in Brookline (the state has no governor's mansion), rides the subway to work, takes out the family garbage, buys his clothes at Filene's, and grows vegetables in the front yard. He and his wife, Kitty, tell interviewers that they spat over money: she spends, he objects. During his first term as governor (1975-79), he had the reputation of being aloof, arrogant, and supercilious. He suffered a humiliating primary defeat at the hands of right-winger Ed King in 1978. Then he spent four years teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and learning how to listen to other people. Now, by all accounts, he knows. He beat King in a rematch in 1982 and was overwhelmingly re-elected last year.

Out on the stump, Dukakis makes the Massachusetts record the centerpiece of his appeal, and when he gets to the next phase of his campaign, says campaign manager John Sasso, he will spell out a program based on the idea of a "national partnership," which will be the Massachusetts approach rewritten to continental scale. The fundamental principle, according to Sasso, is that "everyone is included" in decision-making. Dukakis's style is not to prepare his own program and dramatically unveil it to the legislature and the public, but to get representatives of contending interests into a room and come up with a compromise, which he then blesses, promotes, and puts into action.

As Dukakis advances, one of the big questions of the campaign will be: to what extent are his policies responsible for the Massachusetts economic miracle—or, in fact, has there been any miracle at all? Devotees of supply-side economics say that there has been a miracle, but that Dukakis deserves no credit. They say the state's real heroes are the people who pushed through Proposition 2 ½, the 1980 property tax referendum, and Ed King, who presided over its implementation. Columnist Warren Brookes notes that Dukakis raised taxes during his first term, leading to his state's national reputation as "Taxachusetts." When 2 ½ was enacted (against Dukakis's urging), cutting property taxes in half, it set off a property value, real estate, and construction boom that caused a surge in employment and personal income that Dukakis is thriving on today. It's thanks to Ed King, say the supply-siders, that Dukakis is able to expand programs, cut taxes, and win elections.

This line of argument makes Dukakis angry. "The Massachusetts turnaround began in 1976," he says, "not after Proposition 2 % and not after the Reagan [military] buildup. We added 250,000 jobs between 1976 and 1979, including 110,000 in 1978 alone. Unemployment dropped below the national average for the first time. It was 12 percent in 1975 and 5.5 in the fall of 1978. When I got back as governor in 1983, unemployment was back up and in some towns it was 15,18, 20 percent and I had another deficit to contend with. So the notion that the Massachusetts economy was transformed as a result of what happened in the early 1980s is preposterous. But we got it back on track, we dealt with the new deficit, and we've created 350,000 new jobs in the last four-and-a-half years."

So who’s right? According to two Cambridge academics, Ronald Ferguson of Harvard and David Birch of MIT, neither side is, exactly. Birch told the National Journal that in Massachusetts "the economic miracle per se wasn't exactly a miracle. Relative to our situation in 1974-75, it was quite nice, but our employment growth rate for any period you want to pick has been right about the national average." From 1975 through 1985, he said, employment in Massachusetts grew by 29 percent, in New England by 31 percent, and in the United States by 27 percent. And from 1982 to the present, the growth has been 12.2 for Massachusetts, 13.1 for New England, and 11.9 for the nation, "So we are consistently a point or two below the New England average and a point or two above the national average."

Ferguson is the co-author of a 1986 study that concluded: "Neither the scope nor the timing of recent policy initiatives in Massachusetts supports the view that they were an important catalyst in the remarkable economic turnaround of the past decade," In an interview, he said that "a wave was coming. State policy determined where the water flowed. The wave itself was the result of broad national trends in the national and international economy, a strong demand for the goods and services that Massachusetts had a comparative advantage in providing, including business services, health services, and high-tech manufacturing." Massachusetts had an advantage. Birch said, because of its universities, "thoughtware" industries, hospitals, and financial institutions.

Both Birch and Ferguson say that Massachusetts' spectacular-sounding unemployment rate is not due primarily to Dukakis initiatives, but to the fact that the economy is growing while the state's population and labor force are falling, Ferguson can't find any direct correlation between Proposition 2 ½ and economic growth, but he said that "2 ½ was part of a change in the attitude of the business community toward Massachusetts," Dukakis also has helped change the business climate of the state, he said. "In his first term, he was snotty and aloof toward business," but in his second term this changed.

Even though their remarks tend to deflate some of Dukakis's claims, both analysts are avid supporters, "He's done as much as he could have done to allow growth to happen and to channel it," said Ferguson, "The growth could have gridlocked around Route 128 if the infrastructure hadn't been built to spill it down to Southeast Massachusetts, It might have left the state. There's a labor shortage here, and his E.T, [welfare reform] program has given people training for jobs." Birch added, "When any workers receive a pink slip, Mike has the state government meeting them at the plant door—I mean, literally—and saying to them, 'We know where there are jobs or training.' "

What Dukakis has done in Massachusetts, he says he plans to do in the country if he gets elected: combine deficit-reduction with government activism for economic development. The latter includes $500 million in federal seed money for regional development, and perhaps a few billion more than Democrats in Congress are currently budgeting for low-income housing, education, mass transit, and day care and job-training for welfare recipients. On the campaign trail Dukakis says, "I am a liberal and a progressive. I believe in putting public resources to work to achieve important public ends. But I also know how to balance budgets. I've balanced nine of them. I'm someone who knows how to make hard choices. I item-vetoed $88 million in programs this year, many of them things I'm for." During his first term, he aroused the ire of liberals by cutting welfare in a budget crunch, and one Democratic policy analyst who looked at the Dukakis agenda pronounced it "liberalism on the cheap." Anyone who has tried to drive near Boston knows that Dukakis has not overspent on highway construction.

Dukakis does not rule out tax increases to lower the budget deficit, but he intends first to adopt another Massachusetts idea—increased tax enforcement—to raise money. Several studies indicate that Americans fail to pay more than $100 billion in taxes each year, and that bringing the number of tax audits back to pre-Reagan levels could bring in as much as $44 billion a year. Under a plan he has worked out in collaboration with former IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen, Dukakis figures on raising $18 billion the first year through an amnesty, audits, and better service by the IRS. If the budget deficit is closed, he says, interest rates will fall and the economy will boom again.

This is not big-spender domestic policy, so it might attract support in the South even during a general election campaign. In the primaries Dukakis has enough money to open headquarters there and hire field workers. In Texas his ability to speak Spanish already gives him the capacity to turn out and turn on crowds. On other domestic issues he is a mixed picture: he is pro-choice on abortion and favors government funding, but he has made gays angry by refusing to allow homosexuals to be foster parents. He is tough on crime and drunk driving, but opposes the death penalty. He opposed school busing, but still has good relations with Boston's civil rights leadership. He opposes Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.

Still, Dukakis has other problems. As political analyst William Schneider puts it, Dukakis is in danger of being cast as the "Northern, urban. Establishment liberal," while Gephardt ("ironically, the ultimate Washington insider") makes himself into the "populist insurgent." Gephardt is doing that by taking a trade position that puts him in conflict with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other pillars of enlightened opinion. "Mike is the archetype of the upper-middle-class yuppie liberal," says Schneider. "He's from Brookline, the bastion of good government high-mindedness. If he got elected, the Kennedy School of Government would be running the country."

Dukakis’s other big problem is in foreign policy. He claims, "I am not an isolationist, I'm an interventionist." His advisers tend to be moderates from Harvard and Georgetown, and they say he is a tough bargainer. But on every issue from arms control to the Persian Gulf, his positions are four-square with those of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Edward Markey, Gary Studds, and the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation—which is to say, on the left end of the Democratic Party.

In the early 1980s Dukakis was a strong supporter of the nuclear freeze. Now he wants to slash Star Wars research, extend the ABM Treaty, and perhaps cancel both the Midgetman missile (as too expensive) and the D-5 submarine missile (as too accurate, a "first-strike weapon," and therefore provocative).

He was one of the first governors to refuse to let his National Guard troops train in Honduras. He declares that U.S. support for the contras is illegal under the Rio Treaty and the OAS Charter, and asks: "Where do we get the right to overthrow governments that we don't agree with?" He says he would push for a Contadora-style peace settlement in Central America, would use inter-American aid as a carrot and stick to ensure Nicaraguan good behavior, and would try above all to fight poverty in the Americas, starting with Mexico.

He is opposed to reflagging Kuwaiti vessels in the Persian Gulf, preferring U.S. diplomatic efforts to get major countries to stop arming Iran and Iraq and end the war, or if necessary a U.N. peacekeeping force to patrol the Gulf. He has doubts about whether the invasion of Grenada and the bombing raid on Libya were truly justifiable, and he thinks that "what happened in Korea and the Philippines is the inevitable result of American support for dictators, generals, and juntas." He does give strong support for Israel, but that's an exception to the general pattern.

All of this is just what primary-state Democratic activists want to hear, and, except for Senator Albert Gore on the Gulf and arms control, all of the Democratic candidates are giving it to them in similar measure. The trouble will come in the general election, when Republicans will point out that if there had been a nuclear freeze, the Soviets would have kept 350 SS-20 missiles in Europe and President Reagan would have been unable to bargain them to zero. The Republicans are likely to label Dukakis or any Democrat as a unilateral disarmer, and they are likely to ridicule the idea that U.N. resolutions and inter-American aid are adequate to deal with terrorists and Communists.

Bill Schneider points out that Dukakis, coming from Massachusetts, "has no idea what a real Republican is like. His idea of a Republican is Elliott Richardson. As the nominee, he is going to get battered around." Actually, Dukakis might do all right against George Bush, but Bob Dole is tough.

This article originally ran in the August 31, 1987, issue of the magazine.

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