With the presidential campaigns in full swing ahead of the 2012 election, we asked Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis — a two-term governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee for president in 1988 — for his thoughts on the state of the 2012 presidential campaigns.
Who do you think are the Republican frontrunners?
At this point, it looks as if Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are emerging as two potential nominees, but nobody can tell you what’s going to happen. When I was running, I was at zero in the polls and it was a marathon — a long, contentious effort that, when it came to the nomination, succeeded for me. People know Romney, but they don’t know Perry. And who knows, there could be someone else, but it doesn’t look like it right now.
What does President Obama need to do to get re-elected? How tough of a fight is he facing?
It’s going to be tough, because the economy is always the dominant issue. If the economy was recovering in a reasonably decent fashion right now, he’d be unbeatable, but it isn’t. I think it’s clear, sadly, that Obama is going to get no cooperation at all, certainly from the House of Representatives, in pushing for an expansionary economic policy, which is what in my opinion we need.
My own view is that he’s got to adopt Harry Truman’s 1948 approach and take on the Congress. I think he’s gone more than halfway — and then some — in trying to develop consensus, and I think people know that. What he’s got to do is lay out a plan and then hammer Congress to pass it. If they do, fine, and if they don’t, he needs to take it to the voters. At least then the people will know where he stands.
When you have this foolish filibuster rule in the Senate and a Congress that will not budge, I think what you’ve got to do is throw down the gauntlet and say, “I’m not going to preside over this and I will not sign any budget of the kind that these people want to pass,” which is essentially what President Clinton said. He needs to be very clear that if they want to pass that kind of budget, they’ll need to get themselves another president. Obama needs to be very tough about that.
Richard Nixon, when he was still alive and President George H. W. Bush was seeking re-election in 1992, was asked if an incumbent president who was presiding over a poor economy would always be beaten. He said, “No, but you have to have a plan.” In other words, if people think you have a good idea of what you want to do and what will work over time, they may vote for you even though unemployment is still high. That is what Obama tried to do the other night, and I thought he did a pretty good job of it.
How has the process of running for president changed since you campaigned in 1988?
I don’t know that it’s changed a great deal. I know that the media is 24 hours a day now, but most people do not sit there for 24 hours watching Fox News or CNN or anything else. Although there’s a lot more coverage in some ways, I don’t know how much of an impact there is on public opinion, except for the relatively small portion of the population that spends a lot of time following this. How many of the 310 million people in this country spend a lot of time paying attention to that? Bill O’Reilly has 4 million viewers, but that leaves you with 306 million people who aren’t paying attention to him.
It still depends on a candidate who can articulate who he is and what he wants to do and a first-rate grassroots organization working hard — it’s not much different now than it was in ’88.