Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In observation of Constitution Day and the 221st anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, Governor Michael Dukakis addressed an auditorium of Swarthmore students at his alma mater yesterday afternoon. He discussed the state of American politics, the election race, and campaign strategy amongst other insights into his political wisdom.
“I’d like to begin with an apology. If I had beaten old man Bush, you would have never heard of the kid and we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Dukakis said, eliciting laughs and approval from his audience.
His speech, “The 2008 Presidential Election: What’s at Stake” attempted to place the current presidential election in terms of a larger historical context, one that may elude his youthful pupils. “Were any of you alive when I ran for president? When were you born?” Dukakis asked a Q&A session. The crowd generally responded with ’87, ‘88 and ‘89.
When it comes to interaction with those younger than himself, presumably the vast majority of interactions for Dukakis, 74, the former Governor of Massachusetts has noticed a recurring theme with questions regarding the Bush administration and the current state of American government.
“People ask me, ‘Have you ever seen it this bad?’ Yeah, I say, and it was far worse in the 1950s,” he said.
He acknowledged the tremendous debts incurred by the war in Iraq, dismal economic conditions, international disapproval of the executive office, and a lack of respect for Americans’ civil liberties in the name of national security. However, according to Dukakis, present conditions are qualitatively less calamitous than the hysteria surrounding the threat of communism and McCarthyism in the 1950s, accompanied by a ubiquitous wave of racism, anti-Semitism and hatred, in addition to the beginning of the Cold War.
“The constitution was being shredded everyday by folks arguing that the threat of security not be compromised by our Bill of Rights. Sound familiar?” Dukakis said.
“National security is always the issue when it comes to playing with Americans’ civil rights,” Dukakis said. Furthermore, it troubled him most that the Bush administration “has no concept” of the rigid separation between national security and individual civil liberties.
With regard to the current election, Dukakis referred to the comments of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to further illustrate this grievance. At the Republican National Convention, Palin said in her acceptance speech, “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America — he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”
Students were curious how Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, ought to respond to such allegations. Dukakis insisted upon the lessons learned after his own defeat in 1988. Rather than ignore the attacks, in an attempt to avoid an unpleasant aspect of the election race – a tactic Dukakis regretfully endorsed in his 1988 campaign – he encouraged a tactful response that turns the mudslinging into “a character issue.”
According to The Washington Post, in response to Palin’s allegation, Obama said, “first of all, you don’t even get to read them their rights until you catch them…What I have also said is this: that when you suspend habeas corpus – which has been a principle, dating before even our country, it’s the foundation of Anglo-American law – which says, very simply, if the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ and say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person…The reason that you have this principle is not to be soft on terrorism, it’s because that’s who we are.”
Accordingly, Dukakis believes Obama’s strategy for handling the attack campaign has been extremely commendable.
Other than carefully addressing adverse propaganda, Dukakis stressed the importance of grassroots campaigning for the Obama campaign.
“Obama has over 2 and a half million contributors, which is great, but you want to turn them into precinct workers,” he said. The key to success lies in personal contact and interaction between every voter and voting household in a given area, Democrat, Republican or Independent. He called phone-banking “useless,” and said talking about candidates, face to face, addressing the issues and disparities can ensure a victory.
“The myth of red states is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said, “that limits and structures campaigning to the disadvantage of the Democratic Party.” Instead, a precinct captain in every precinct in the United States, utilizing six precinct workers, going door to door and establishing contact with community members is the safest bet.
Still, in the spirit of Dukakis’ passive-aggressive nature, he was certain that “the real issues of this campaign” would surface in due time.
“The smoke and fog will clear, the Palin star is fading; the economic issues are so dominant. They have waged a cultural war; it won’t last.”
Michael Dukakis currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University.