The man who made his political bones handling Boston’s blizzard of 1978 has spent the last 17 winters in the sunshine glow of UCLA. Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate for president, is a visiting professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, launching young people into the public service careers he endorses so passionately. UCLA is where he staged his last fervent campaign rally the day before he lost toGeorge H.W. Bush; the day after the election, he was back at his governor’s desk. As California votes in its primary, Dukakis puts his mind to the Golden State’s political workings, and the nature of a presidential campaign.
How has presidential campaigning changed since you ran?
I don’t think it’s changed that much. It’s obviously combative, but as any student of American history knows, we’ve had hand-to-hand combat in American politics since the beginning of the republic; in fact, it was a lot tougher back then, in some ways.
It must be grueling — the hours, the travel, the food.
[For politicians], campaigning day after day is not new. What is different is spending a lot of time on airplanes. But if you don’t like campaigning, you shouldn’t be running for office. And you cannot be in lousy shape and run for the presidency.
The Secret Service [protection] — I found that rather difficult. I held off as long as I could because I didn’t want to be walled off, but their job is to make sure nobody does any harm to you. They’re very professional. Yes, you could [still work] the rope line, but the easy spontaneity I could enjoy as governor just went out the window.
So you were relieved when they departed?
Well, no, I would have preferred to have been elected!
Has the electorate changed much?
I don’t think so. I think a lot of Americans are better informed, yet there’s more required than just having information. It’s trying to make judgments about where we want this country to go. And there’s no question that moderation is not exactly the name of the game. In fact, the one moderate politician these days is Obama. It seems to me that [Sen.] Richard Lugar’s defeat in Indiana, [Rep.] Mike Castle’s defeat in the primary in Delaware in 2010 and [Sen.] Olympia Snowe’s retirement now makes it official: Moderate and thoughtful Republicanism in the U.S. is dead.
How do California politics differ from Massachusetts politics?
There’s much less precinct-based grass-roots organizing here. Almost nobody rings a doorbell. It’s all media-driven. We organized half the precincts in California when I ran. If we had organized them all, I would have won. That [organization] just doesn’t happen here, for reasons I’m not sure I understand.
There’s a guy running for mayor of Riverside, Rusty Bailey. He was my student assistant, ex-West Pointer, helicopter pilot. He beat an incumbent councilman. How? Knocking on every door in his district.
Isn’t it because California is as big as a country?
So you’ve got 35,000 precincts. But you’ve got 37.5 million people. If you can’t recruit 35,000 precinct captains out of 37.5 million people, there’s something wrong with you. Now you’ve got this nonpartisan primary, which I just don’t understand. What’s the point of having a primary if it’s not partisan?
Even having said that, the dearth of precinct-based organizing in California just doesn’t make any sense to me.
More Californians are registering as “decline to state” voters, and you think the solution is more party activism?
More engagement with people face to face; you really appreciate the positive reaction you get. You contact people, they ask you a few questions, they may be interested, and by the time the conversation is over, another block captain. You don’t get that unless you knock on somebody’s door. The Internet won’t do that for you; Twitter won’t do that for you; Facebook won’t do that for you.
The Internet has changed fundraising.
The Internet is a wonderful fundraising and organizing tool. Obama [had] 4 million contributors. I set a record in ’88 with 400,000! [But] when somebody sends you the 50 bucks, back goes an email: “Thanks very much; will you be a precinct captain?” That’s key.
What’s the impact of the Citizens United decision?
Terrible. It has to be one of the five worst decisions by the Supreme Court. [They] call themselves strict constructionists, right? Tell me where it says in the Constitution that money is speech. Tell me where it says Congress cannot reasonably regulate campaign contributions. It’s been doing so for 120 years. All of a sudden these guys decide, not only is money speech but corporate money is speech. Outrageous, in my opinion. It’s polluting the political process.
And there is no constitutional issue about this healthcare bill. Scalia a few years ago wrote an opinion saying the federal government could regulate somebody’s backyard marijuana patch under the commerce clause, because that patch had an indirect effect on interstate commerce. You’re talking about 20% of the GNP with healthcare, and the federal government can’t regulate it? Don’t employers have to pay a minimum wage under the commerce clause? If they turn this down, those guys ought to be impeached, honest to God. There’s no constitutional issue here.
Why do so many national-caliber statesmen come from Massachusetts?
When you’re born in Massachusetts, or even when you move there, you’re infected with two things: politics, and the Red Sox. Politics is part of the culture, maybe in a way that it isn’t so much in many other states.
What about California? Have we saddled ourselves with too much democracy with our initiative process?
No, you’re saddled with a two-thirds [vote] requirement for new taxes. I can’t imagine trying to govern under those circumstances. At least you got rid of the [two-thirds legislative vote] for passing the budget, but a two-thirds vote on anything is tough.
A great state, and a state with great wealth, is paralyzed because it can’t seem to close the budget gap. My hat’s off to [Mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa, who won on Measure R, the transportation tax — 67% [vote threshold] in the middle of a recession, to finally get Los Angeles a first-class public transit system. This is the time to build: Contractors are hungry, they’re bidding low, there are lots of people looking for work.
Your father was from Greece; what is happening there?
The same thing that’s been going in the United States for the past 10 years, only worse. Same situation: Cut taxes, raise spending and you end up in the shape they’re in. When Clinton left office, this country was in great shape financially and economically. So what happened? We got a new guy, and five tax cuts and two wars later, here we are.
Greece is in worse shape. Tax evasion is a national sport; the bureaucracy is twice as big as it should be. This is as bad as the 30 Years War between Sparta and Athens. When we go back, the press asks me what to do. I say we’re proud of our Greek heritage, but we can’t collect taxes for you, we can’t reform your bureaucracy, and in the United States we don’t retire at 50. I’m 78, and I’m still working!
Does intense scrutiny keep good people from seeking public office?
I don’t think so. I hope not. If you can’t set high standards of integrity for yourself and the people who work for you, you don’t deserve to be in the business.
I say to my students, if you want to go into public service, I’ll do everything I can — help you, open up doors for you. Just remember two things: live moderately, and have a good but conventional sex life. If you want the other stuff, good luck to you, but don’t go into public service. And that seems to be quite bipartisan.
Oy, John Edwards, can you believe it? Kitty [his wife] has much better instincts for this stuff; the first time she heard him, she said, “He’s a phony.” I said, “No, I’m impressed.” She said, “Michael I’m telling you, he’s a phony.”
Is it time to give up the electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote?
We should have given it up 125 years ago. It’s ridiculous. To be bipartisan: If Kerry had gotten 60,000 more votes in Ohio [in 2004], he would have won, even though Bush would have had a 3 million vote majority. What sense does that make? Because of [the electoral college], candidates campaign in about six states for the last two months; that’s it. If every vote counted, it’d be a whole different ballgame.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.