Michael Dukakis on Campaign Jujitsu, Improving Obama's Communications Strategy, and Where Occupy Should Go Next

12/26/2011 10:29 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2012
  • Matt Bieber Author of Life in the Loop: Essays on OCD. He writes about obsessions, personal and political, at

Michael Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic nominee for president.

MATT BIEBER: In an interview with Katie Couric a few years ago, 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 made a terrible mistake assuming I could blow it off -- and you can't. 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.

MB: After going through those kinds of attacks, did you think differently at all about your fellow citizens? Was there ever a point when you thought, 'How did folks get taken in by this stuff?'

MD: No, no, no. 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 -- if you don't say that, don't be surprised that some people believe it.

MB: In that Katie Couric interview, you said you've got to fight fire with fire...

MD: 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. It's more than that. 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 election? Why the different strategy?

MD: Well, it was the presidency. I thought the country was tired of all the back and forth we had under Reagan. And that's where a lot of the polarization started. And Gingrich kind of added to it when he was Speaker.

I'd run a very positive campaign in the primary, very successfully. I understand politics is a contact sport, but I've always been a positive guy, emphasizing the positive, "Let's get going" -- working together and stuff.

In retrospect, it was 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 subway to work -- has that model been eclipsed? Could you have been successful in today's environment?

MD: I think so -- or somebody like me. Now, you got to focus. My theme always was strongly economic.

Your opponent is going to try to knock you off by emphasizing other things -- death penalty, tax increases and so on -- and you've got to understand that and be able to deal with it effectively.

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.

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 Massachusetts Legislature in '88, it was a hell of a lot better than the one we got [under Governor Mitt Romney].

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. And [in 2009 and 2010] I think that should've been the Democratic theme out of the White House and Congress.

Fifty-four million uninsured people in this country, 90% working or members of working families. If you take a poll tomorrow and ask the American people: 'Should working people and their families have decent, affordable healthcare?' 95% say yes.

So why haven't we been saying this? Beats me! We've been talking about insurance reform and this kind of stuff. That doesn't mean anything to people. It's whether or not working people and their families are going to have decent, affordable healthcare.

MB: What's your take on the Occupy movement?

MD: My hat's off to these kids for doing what they're doing. 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? I want to see those teach-ins happening on hundreds of campuses all over the country. This thing has got to expand now and encompass more people, more places.

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?

The full version of this interview appears on The Wheat and Chaff.