Each year, Michael Dukakis kicks off the first Southern California Luncheon Society gathering and this year was no different. Joining us in Los Angeles at Napa Valley Grille on Saturday January 14th and then making the trek up to San Francisco on February 24th at Credo, Mike Dukakis has always brought an informative and self-deprecatory approach to getting his message out. Each year he has mentioned that if he had beaten Bush in 1988, he would be speaking to us in another capacity—and says that if he beaten the Old Man, nobody would have ever heard about The Son. In Boston, the former Governor talked about the business of statecraft and why it matters.
Both Mike and Kitty Dukakis were early Barack Obama supporters and were impressed that they built a grass roots campaign to connect with voters, something the DNC forgot about in the 2010 midterm elections. Dukakis believes that Democrats needs to organize down to the small precinct. He believes that six-to-eight block captains per precinct must organize repeated door-knocking excursions and report any supporters or potential supporters back to a precinct captain. In turn, they must be responsible for getting those supporters to the polls on Election Day. “It’s neighbors seeing neighbors. It’s putting a human face on the political process. It’s engaging people in conversations on issues they care about and responding to them.”
The first question Dukakis will ask anybody running for office is “How many precincts do you have? How many of those precincts have captains?”
Grass Roots campaigns based on old-fashioned-precinct-walking shoe leather will deliver a 5-10% incremental lift each and every time. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet personally credits “The Dukakis Lecture” to getting him to retool his campaign to incorporate a grassroots effort which resulted in a narrow come-from-behind win on Election Night 2010.
Fast-Forward to 2012. It’s ironic that the very same people who were critical of Dukakis because Boston Harbor or Willie Horton now sing praising his efforts when he is compared to Mitt Romney. Yes, Santorum and Gingrich are damning Dukakis with faint praise as the hammer the current front-runner, but he did create jobs three times faster than Mitt Romney. He’ll take it all the same.
When it comes to the Romney family, Dukakis admired Mitt’s father George a great deal. As the head of American Motors in the early 1960’s the elder Romney built a fleet of high mileage cars. Dukakis owned a Rambler convertible and courted Kitty with it before they married. The elder Romney was not the poll-driven politico his son became; he was a modernizer who looked for answers with a bipartisan perspective. After leaving Michigan for the Nixon Administration as the Secretary of HUD, Dukakis was impressed with his work and convinced a number of his holdovers to join him after he became Governor in 1974.
Whatever admiration he had for the father was lost upon watching his son at close range. The younger Romney did give Ted Kennedy a run for his money in 1994 when he ran for the Senate until commercials like the one below began to pop up in the Boston media market.
Romney returned to Bain after the election and found himself running the Salt Lake City Olympics that were awash in scandal. Later, he won the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts in 2002 as a moderate Republican, but as his ambition grew to a national scale, he tacked to the right and contracted selective amnesia on his own legislative accomplishments. It became clear to Dukakis that Romney had no ideological moorings beyond his own political advancement.
Back to 1988. In that race, Dukakis found himself bridging the new and the old wings of the Democratic Party. Still smarting from the 49 state shellacking of Walter Mondale received from Ronald Reagan, Dukakis increased Democratic voter totals by 7 million voters between 1984 to 1988, something unequaled until Barack Obama added 10 million new Democratic voters in 2008 when compared to 2004. How did Dukakis do it? He organized right down to the precinct level. In California with its 25,000 voter precincts, he was able to organize 10,000 of them and nearly won the state—The Golden State has been safely Democratic ever since.
Better still, since 1988, the Democrats have won the popular vote in the last 4 out of 5 presidential elections, with the only blight being 2000, where Bush was selected by the Supreme Court.
Back to the Present. Today, Dukakis feels that the GOP painted themselves into a corner by listening to the barking dogs of the Republican Right. Obama made the gutsy call to invest in our industrial base by bailing out of GM, providing a safe harbor for Chrysler with Fiat, and allowing Ford access to capital, even the polling was squarely against the bailout.
By pressing the “reset button,” the auto industry has unshackled itself from decades of bad management and appears to making the right steps into the modernizing to compete in the 21st century. Chrysler repaid their federal loans ahead of schedule. GM, Ford, and Chrysler are adding shifts and hiring workers but people like Mitt Romney, who came of age as the son of an auto executive, have found themselves on the losing side of the issue. Just as the anti-immigrant stance of members of the California GOP has ceded the state to the Democrats for the next generation, the current anti-worker sentiment may move the Midwest into the Democratic column for another generation to come.
Dukakis feels that the Republican candidates are shifting back to the Culture War bromides because as the economy recovers, the Republicans will have a weak argument. However, unlike 1988, the aftereffects of The Great Recession are so pervasive that it will be nearly impossible to distract the electorate with peripheral issues, like The Pledge of Allegiance was in 1988 or the question of who pays the healthcare costs for contraception is in this election.
In the end, Dukakis always comes back to grass roots campaigning. Rather than complain about Ohio ballot boxes, as some did in 2004, Dukakis will remind anybody that if the Senator Kerry team could have coaxed additional 15 voters per precinct, he would have won Ohio and today, President Kerry would be in the final lap of his second term in office.
For the Boston gathering, we were thankful to have our friend Rucker Alex serve as the moderator and for Mike Dukakis, we were happy to be on his home turf. Aside from his continuing support of mental health efforts, based on the benefits that his wife Kitty has found through ECS. Michael and Kitty continue to live in their home in Brookline and to his credit, he walks the talk.
For those who are curious, the block captain for Deval Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign was…Michael Dukakis.
That is a lesson worth hearing every year.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.