Online Extra: Dukakis: Why Bush Is Vulnerable

The man who lost to George W.'s dad in '88 now says a foreign policy gone awry, plus a weak economy could undo this President in '04

Michael S. Dukakis, who in 1988 battled a candidate named George Bush, has been out of elective politics since 1991, when he completed a record 12-year stint as governor of Massachusetts. Now 69, Dukakis is vice-chairman of the Amtrak board and a Distinguished Professor of political science at Northeastern University. He is also a fervent supporter of Senator John F. Kerry, his lieutenant governor in the early 1980s.

On a warm summer afternoon, Dukakis sat down in his small, brick-lined office on Northeastern's Boston campus to talk with BusinessWeek's William C. Symonds about the 2004 Presidential contest. Edited excerpts follow. Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the interview that appears in the July 21, 2003 issue of BusinessWeek.

Q: Do the Democrats have a realistic chance of unseating President Bush next year?

A:

There isn't any question that most Democrats, myself included, feel that this is the worst Administration we've ever lived under. There is a very powerful feeling that we've got to get this guy out of there. Bush has problems, and he's beatable. Any of us who have been in this business know that favorability is meaningless. It is the reelect question -- if the election were held tomorrow, would you vote for him? -- [that is key].

You know where Bush was on that question just before we invaded Iraq? 44%. You know where his old man was on the [reelect] question in 1991, when he was at 91% on favorability? 47%. And 1991 is very instructive. In early July, 1991...people were saying: "Let's have a coronation." And a lot of folks who should have thought about running against him bailed out, except for this guy in Arkansas who reads polls better than anybody else. [Bill Clinton] took a look at that 47% and said: "I can take this guy."

Q: But surely this will be an uphill struggle, won't it?

A:

I don't mean Bush is easy pickings. He's going to be tough, and they're going to work like hell to stay in [office]. For one thing, he has 300 gazillion dollars. But all I can tell you is that a guy who was at 44% on reelect the week before he invaded Iraq -- assuming this Middle Eastern situation continues to be bogged down -- has problems and is beatable. But not by everybody. That's why I think John [Kerry] is so compelling.

Q: How do you believe Kerry is positioned in the race for the Democratic nomination?

A:

I have a bias here, but John is the candidate that the White House doesn't want to run against. He is very strong on foreign policy and national security. And I think he'll kill them on the domestic issues.

If ever there was a vulnerable Administration [on domestic policy], this is it. Good God, this tax bill [just passed] isn't going to revitalize anything except the Caribbean vacation trade. It's all trickle down. And it's clear the economy isn't going to go anywhere very quickly. I hope it isn't going to get any worse, but it isn't going to get a hell of a lot better.

Q: Can the Democrats counter the campaign machine built by Bush and Karl Rove?

A:

Nothing against Rove, but every political cycle we have some genius who is supposed to be sensational. Sometimes the strategy works once, but it may not work twice. Jim Baker was a fabulous campaign manager for George Bush against me [in '88]. But 1992 was a different time, and it just didn't work. They ran a lousy campaign, despite the fact that one of the smartest guys in politics -- Baker -- was running it.

Q: This will be the fourth time that a Democrat has run against a candidate named George Bush. Which campaign will this one most resemble?

A:

None: 9/11 and the national security thing have made this a different campaign. Bill Clinton is as effective a campaigner as anyone I know, but there's no question that it was a much more vulnerable Bush in '92 than in '88. Clinton had the good sense to do what I didn't do, which was to get ready for the attack campaign and have clear and effective strategies for dealing with it. If I had done that, I can't tell you if I would have won it, but it would have been a hell of a lot closer.

By 1992, we had all learned that lesson. And the economy was lousy, and that ultimately did Bush in. Will the same thing happen to his kid? Maybe a combination of a foreign policy gone awry, plus a weak economy -- it seems to me those are his real vulnerabilities.

Q: But unlike his father, George Bush the son has moved far faster to address recession.

A:

Even if the numbers are looking a little better, Joe Citizen is not feeling it. In my view, this has to be the most ill-conceived set of policies to revive an economy in the history of the U.S. In fact, it has nothing to do with reviving an economy. Bush was in favor of [these policies] when the economy was in good shape. [Bush economic policy can be summed up as:] Give it to the wealthy, and somehow they will invest and create jobs.

Q: What are you doing these days?

A:

Someone once asked: "When are you going to retire?" I can't imagine retiring. I'm still very committed to the process and the kind of things I believe in. I have a full teaching schedule, and I'm vice-chairman of the Amtrak board. Bush won't reappoint me [to the board]. But my candidate for President [Kerry] believes deeply in a modern, first-class rail transportation system. Yet this year, we may end up spending more on Iraq's railroads than we do on Amtrak.

My mission in life these days is to encourage young people to go into public service. That's why I teach and spend a lot of time speaking on college campuses. I thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing, and this is a great place to do it.

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