Touting his party’s successes and depreciating his rival’s mandate, a relaxed and humorous Michael S. Dukakis Wednesday accepted responsibility for his defeat, saying it was he, and not the Democratic message, that voters rejected Tuesday.
“It was winnable,” Dukakis told reporters at a post-election press conference, noting that he had lost several key states by small margins. But, he added, “ ‘almost’ doesn’t count in politics.”
“I gave it my best shot,” he said, but “it’s obvious that I didn’t do as good a job as I should have in reaching out” to voters in regions such as the South, where President-elect George Bush ran up large majorities.
Despite his loss, “I don’t see a mandate” for Bush, Dukakis said, noting that Democrats gained seats in both the House and Senate and increased the number of statehouses they control.
“I don’t think you can look at those results on the congressional side and not conclude that (voters) are also expressing very strong progressive feelings about what this country has to do,” he said.
Wants Themes Continued
Although Dukakis had criticized Bush during the campaign for trying to co-opt Democratic issues like education and day care, Wednesday he said Bush would do well to continue stressing those themes.
“If that happens,” he said, “the campaign will have been worth it.”
And if not, he added, “as a responsible opposition, we have a responsibility to be constructively critical.”
Dukakis made clear that he still wants a role in his party’s national councils, saying, for example, that he expected to be involved in the selection of a party chairman to replace Paul G. Kirk Jr., who plans to leave the post at the end of the year.
But he avoided taking sides in the widely anticipated fights over which direction the Democrats should take in the next few years. “I don’t believe it is a matter of right or left,” he said, expressing the faith in pragmatic problem solving that has been the hallmark of his approach toward government.
Dukakis also sidestepped any suggestion that he might run again in 1992.
‘My Job Is Clear’
“At this point, my job is clear,” he said, one of several references he made to his plans to resume his duties as chief executive of the nation’s 13th-largest state.
Characteristically, Dukakis spent the day after the election at his desk, arriving early in the morning, making telephone calls, going through papers and, he said, “getting re-acclimated” to being governor of Massachusetts.
His one concession to the grueling pace of the campaign, he said, was that he planned to “take the weekend off.” He and his wife, Kitty, might take a longer vacation later in the year, he added.
For many defeated political candidates, the ritual post-election press conference has been a time for recriminations, excuses or bitterness. Some of all those feelings have been evident in the comments of other Democrats around the country and even some members of Dukakis’ family in recent days.
But Dukakis, himself, seems to have taken his defeat with the sort of equanimity that has been one of his great strengths as a public official but which proved to be one of his weaknesses as a candidate. He looked back on the campaign with little sorrow, almost no anger and a sense of whimsy that was seldom evident during his 605-day quest for the nation’s highest office.
“Am I disappointed? Sure,” he said. But, he quickly added, “the election was yesterday . . . we have much to do.”
Responds on Baker Post
Asked his reaction to Bush’s announcement that his campaign chairman, James A. Baker III, would become his secretary of state, Dukakis responded with a laugh: “I believe in the redemption of souls,” he said.
During the campaign, Dukakis had been highly critical of Bush’s “handlers” and of the campaign tactics that Baker, as Bush’s campaign chief, had approved. And Wednesday, despite the lack of rancor, he stuck to that criticism.
“I’m not a bitter person,” he said, but Bush’s “was a distorted campaign,” one which “did not set a high standard.”
And he warned that Bush’s heavy, and successful, use of negative advertising during the campaign may encourage future candidates from both parties to do likewise. The campaign, he said, “may well set a standard we live to regret.”
Beyond saying that he should have responded to the attacks earlier, something he has said several times in the past two weeks, Dukakis brushed aside attempts to get him to offer his view of where his campaign had gone wrong, saying there would be “plenty of time for analysis” at some later point.
Offers Little Explanation
“I wasn’t successful in getting my message through,” he said, but he offered little explanation of why he thought that was so.
And when asked whether he thought he would have been able to win if the campaign had gone on a week or two longer, Dukakis, who had been gaining in many polls for the last two weeks, shrugged, laughed and reminded the assembled reporters of the thousands of miles he had flown over the last three days with sleep only on his campaign plane.
“If I had more time, you all would be in the hospital,” he said. “I couldn’t do that to you.”