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Editors' Picks Government Officials Interviews

An Interview with Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis

Raised just outside of Boston, Michael Dukakis served as the Governor of Massachusetts before becoming the Democratic Nominee for President of the United States in 1988. Since leaving office, Dukakis has served on the Board of Directors of Amtrak and now teaches at Northeastern University as a Distinguished Professor of Political Science.

The Politic: What issue most worries you, and what needs to be done to address it?

Michael Dukakis: My particular focus these days is the Democratic Party and how we take advantage of what I think is a very promising situation next year to win the Congress and see if we can get this country back on track. This tax bill has to be the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen in my life. In a country with growing income inequality, we’re going to add to that. We’re currently facing a 700-billion-dollar deficit, and we’re going to double that—in a time where we should be getting back to a balanced budget and even surplus given that we’re getting closer and closer to full employment. And, the Republican Party in this country and the guy in the White House don’t seem to understand this or, if they do, don’t care. My party better get serious about competing hard to win the Congress back and then the presidency in 2020. That’s my concern at this point.

Given what I’ve seen with the new president, it seems obvious this guy is in the pocket of every special interest in the country, which is just disgraceful. So we’ve got work to do. That means no more red and blue stuff. It means fifty states, 180,000 precincts with good people—mostly volunteers—working hard to win back good folks who thought when they were voting for Trump that they were voting for someone who really cared about them. It’s quite clear after eleven months he doesn’t care for much about anything besides rich folks and guys like himself, so that’s my particular concern.

One thing you said was that we need to balance the budget. Since 2000, neither Republicans nor Democrats have really taken measures to reduce the deficit. Do you think that we can get back to a balanced budget?

During Clinton’s second term, this country came as close to fiscal sanity as this country has seen in a long time. People tend to forget this. Beginning primarily in the second year of his second term, our country was doing better economically, and we achieved not only a balanced budget but actually a handsome surplus of a quarter of a trillion dollars. In his last State of the Union address, Clinton said that after working at this, we finally had the first back-to-back budgetary surpluses in fifty years—and we did. And he said that we had a choice: we could spend it or give it back in the form of tax cuts.

But you and I know that looking down the road, we’re going to have some serious financial obligations that we’re going to have to deal with, one of them being Social Security. And rather than spend this money on a tax cut, he laid out a long-term plan in some detail where we would reduce and eliminate the national debt in ten to twelve years. During his second term, because we were no longer deficit financing everything, Clinton actually cut the debt by 600 billion dollars.

And had Gore been elected, we would now virtually have no national debt. With the prospect of Gore, we never would have gotten involved in Iraq where we spent about three trillion dollars. And this country would be in good shape financially. Unfortunately, Bush was the guy that took over and got us into that war—one of the biggest mistakes I think. And now we’ve got this guy and his party who used to be conservative fiscally with no concerns about deficit financing even when the economy is close to full employment. I think that’s a very dangerous situation and very unwise, and I think this tax bill is just outrageous—not just what it means in terms of equity but also in terms of our overall fiscal situation. Point in fact, Clinton laid out a plan in detail, but thanks to the Electoral College, we never got the chance to implement it.

Do you agree that the Democratic Party needs to modify its strategy to regain the disaffected voters it lost in 2016, and how do you think the party has done in the past year?

I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think people spent too much time looking at the polls and not enough time knocking on doors. And I’m a huge believer in precincts-based grassroots organizing. We’ve got to easily be able to recruit 180,000 precinct captains and turn those folks loose in those precincts. Unfortunately, we’ve been buying into this red and blue narrative, which I think is a terrible mistake. I mean, I carried West Virginia in 1988. When did it become red? Why is working-class West Virginia considered a red state? I think you have to compete at every precinct in the country. I think we can take back the Congress next year, but it’s not going to happen unless we have people out there working. And I think they’re ready for it.

Now, the voters we lost [in 2016] are people that ought to be down-the-line Democrats. They’re working Americans, and many of them still don’t have health insurance. We’ve got to do a better job of helping folks understand that the Affordable Care Act was principally designed to make it possible for working Americans to have decent affordable health care. Eighty-five percent of the uninsured people in this country are working or members of working families. They’re not sitting around. They’re working. If you’re on welfare, you get Medicaid. These are working Americans with no health insurance. If you took a poll tomorrow and asked if working Americans should have decent affordable health care, 93 percent would say “yes.” But we didn’t make that point nearly as forcefully as I think we should have. This is about working Americans trying to support themselves and their families.  

Do you think American politics can transcend this red/blue paradigm that you mentioned?

Oh yeah. This is not the first time this country has been so divided. Have you ever seen the movie Lincoln? I mean, that was bad. We almost became a divided country permanently. We’ve gone through this. We have been through terrible periods with divided families and divided communities. The Fifties were horrible. People on either side of that whole anti-communist thing touched a lot of us.

If you can believe this, I graduated from Swarthmore in 1955 and was drafted into the military six weeks later. When I was in Fort Dix, New Jersey, for my training, I had to pass a personnel interview where there’s another draftee who’s a so-called personnel specialist and decides what you’re going to do for the next two years. Except, this guy had a file on me. And this is in pre-computer America. A vanilla file with information on every single political activity I had ever engaged in at Swarthmore College—every one of them. Fortunately, he didn’t recommend me for an honorable discharge, which they were doing to some people. Ten years later, we discovered that the FBI had a tap on the Swarthmore switchboard that was recording every single phone call that went to that switchboard. I was just some Greek kid from Boston, and they had a file on me. They must have had files on millions of people. So we got through this stuff.

Now, the guy currently occupying the White House is a little bit different. But the answer to him is to go out and win big next year and make it clear that whatever he’s saying these days doesn’t make a lot of sense to the American people—and for that matter, whatever his party’s doing these days doesn’t make much sense. That seems to me to be the biggest task for the Democratic Party, and we’ve got to go out and take it seriously.

How would you compare the polarization now to when you were in politics, and how can we restore bipartisanship?

I started getting into politics during the McCarthy era. I was deeply involved during the Vietnam era. Those were terrible periods during American history, worse in many ways than this one. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep looking for common ground wherever possible, and I think you need to do that all of the time. Now at the state and local level, there is a lot of that going on. You’ve got lots of reaching across the aisle. It’s very different in the national scene.

If in fact there are differences, and there are, then you’ve got to debate them and at the same time try to get yourself a Congress and presidency that reflect the values of the American people. But I’m very concerned about the guy in the White House because he’s so erratic. Part of the political process is going to have to be to make sure he doesn’t serve again. But in the short term, it’s about the Congress and trying to get us back to some degree of common sense here.

Now with foreign policy, I think it’s been badly flawed under both parties. We still think we can be the world’s policemen, and we can’t. With the exception of one or two instances, every American military intervention since World War II has been a disaster. We have six thousand troops in Africa. What are we doing in Africa? And so, both parties have a lot of thinking to do about what we’re doing internationally. Either way, you’re going to have differences of opinion. That’s what politics is all about. Debate them. Resolve them, if possible. But if not, change them. That’s why we have elections, and that’s why people run for office.

You mentioned the political activity at the state and local levels. To what extent can state and local governments address the needs of voters and bring the changes they are looking for?

Well, they’re certainly working at it. Look at climate change. It’s real. It’s clear. Trump’s attitude is incomprehensible. So what has happened, interestingly enough, is that the states, the governors, the mayors, and others with some help from Michael Bloomberg—the former Mayor of New York—have now put together a very broad-based coalition of folks who have committed to the Paris Agreement and are going to do everything they can to make it happen, notwithstanding Trump.

It’s very interesting how, at least in that issue, just about everybody including the private sector is just so far beyond Trump that it’s almost ludicrous. The private sector is paying attention to climate change. They’re not building more coal mines. They’re investing in the kind of technology that will give us clean and nonpolluting energy and doing it in a way that employs thousands of people. We already have 260,000 people working in the clean energy industry, and that’s just a start. So I think that’s another area where you can build considerable consensus and, in fact, where it’s already happening.  

Where do you get your news?

Well, I read a couple of papers every day. One is The Boston Globe and the other is The New York Times. I get a fair amount of my news and current information from the Internet.

What place would you most like to visit?

Greece is at the top of the list, needless to say. We try to do that every three years or so. But, I’m not only concerned about Greece, but I’m beginning to wonder whether the United States is starting to head in the same direction. Because this is exactly what got Greece into trouble: trying to borrow their way out of trouble and in fact getting deeper and deeper into it.

But I’d like to visit Greece. It’s such a beautiful place, it’s where my parents came from, so on and so forth. I’m very close to lots of folks over there. And it is a beautiful place with some lessons to teach us about fiscal responsibility.

If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?

If I weren’t teaching, I suppose I’d be very active politically. But I love teaching. I love working with young people, and we’re producing some terrific young people in this country. So that’s what I want to do as long as I can do it.

Which living person do you most admire?

Look, the best person I ever worked with in politics is Bill Clinton. He’s a remarkable guy in many ways. Of course, he has his flaws, but as a public servant and somebody who was a student of public policy, it’s very tough to beat Bill Clinton.

But there are so many other folks around doing really great stuff these days. I mean, I mentioned Michael Bloomberg. Here’s a kid who grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts, went to Johns Hopkins, and ends up as a billionaire and Mayor of the City of New York. And he isn’t quitting for a second. He’s deeply into things like climate change. He’s putting up a significant amount of money to organize a broad state and local coalition and doing wonderful work. He’s a guy I admire and respect a lot.

What keeps you up at night?

Old age. I’m kidding but I’m not kidding. One of the problems with aging is you don’t sleep anywhere as much as you used to. So I find myself these days early in the afternoon desperate for a twenty-minute nap because I don’t sleep more than four to four-and-a-half hours. But I feel fine. I’m teaching in the morning and doing stuff the rest of the day. But I could use about twenty minutes in the afternoon.

What is your advice for college students?

I’m an advocate for public service. I spend a lot of time speaking to and meeting with young people and the message is very strong: public service is a noble profession. You can get things done. So both as a teacher and citizen, I do everything I can to encourage young people to get into politics and public life and make careers there.