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Dukakis and the Myth of Democratic Extremism | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Dukakis and the Myth of Democratic Extremism

Former Massachusetts Governor and Democratic Party presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 2009. (AP Photo/Angela Rowlings)

There will be many lessons to learn from the government shutdown, however it ends. Here is one of them: from the punditocracy, Democrats will never, ever, ever get moral credit for “moderating” their ideology. To the guardians of our political discourse, their leaders will always represent but one of the “extreme” poles in the false-equivalence game.

Here’s Joe Nocera in The New York Times this past Monday, affecting to call out “those Banana Republicans,” which according to the rules means he has to say something mean about Democrats too: “A party controlled by its most extreme faction will ultimately be forced back to the center. The Democrats learned that when Walter Mondale was losing to Ronald Reagan, and Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush. Now it is the Republicans who don’t seem to understand that their extreme tactics are pleasing a small percentage of their countrymen but alienating everyone else.”

Leave aside Walter Mondale, who actually lost because the incumbent Republican enjoyed an economic boom that had much more to do with Jimmy Carter’s actions than his own. Let’s talk about Michael Dukakis, that poor hapless fellow who saved Massachusetts from fiscal perdition but ended up as one of history’s pathetic losers, the mousy man in a military helmet on the tank. What was the entire rationale for his successful 1988 nominating campaign? That he was anti-ideology, all the way down. The signature line from his acceptance speech was, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values.” The son of Greek immigrants, absent an iota of ethnic color, he was mocked as “Zorba the Clerk.” (I learned from Wikipedia that composer John Williams wrote a “Fanfare for Michael Dukakis,” which is too funny for words—like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dishrag,” or “Dimanche apres midi sur l’Île de Rikers.)” He forced the second-place candidate, Jesse Jackson—the ideological guy, the guy whom the party actually would have nominated if it had been “controlled by its most extreme faction”—to wait in the convention parking lot before he would meet with him. (Even his praise for Jackson in his acceptance speech was anti-ideological: “a man whose candidacy says…to every American, you are a full shareholder in our dream.” A shareholder!) His campaign slogan was “good jobs at good wages”—aux armes, citoyens!

His governorship certainly seemed to qualify him to make the argument. He first won, in 1974, campaigning from the right, against a Republican incumbent, Francis Sargent, best known for aggressively pushing racial integration of Boston’s schools. A UPI political reporter analyzed his victory: “In the upside down world of Massachusetts politics it makes sense that Republicans are liberals, Democrats are conservatives, and that Michael S. Dukakis of the New Deal and Great Society party is going to run the state like a bank.” He made a “lead pipe guarantee” of no new taxes; his win, said UPI, was “a statement by the voters that they were tired of the Sargent administration’s emphasis on costly human service programs which caused the state’s budget to triple during his tenure in office….While he will be committed to implementing the social welfare programs of the Sargent years, Dukakis will do so with the bottom line in mind—how much is it going to cost and can we get by without it?” And so he did, at least in his second chance in the office, from 1983 to 1991 (he lost the first time in a primary in 1978). This time, he prospered as the consummate “technocrat,” winning recognition in 1986 from the National Governor’s Association as the most effective state executive in the country, presiding over an economic boom nicknamed the “Massachusetts Miracle.” Some extremist.

Then Lee Atwater successfully painted him on behalf of George H.W. Bush as a flag-hating, rapist-loving Bolshevik, which is apparently all the likes of Joe Nocera, disgracefully, cares to believe of him.

Don’t count on historical memory from the guardians of our political discourse—leastwise concerning Democratic presidents and presidential candidates. Remember the reaction when Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over?” What news! What novelty! What Democratic president had ever before said such a thing? The answer, of course, was: the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who in his 1978 State of the Union said, almost identically, “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.” Of course government can eliminate poverty and reduce inflation and provide energy—but that’s not the point.

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My point is that each new Democratic president and presidential nominee who tries to roll that same mossy old rock up the hill will get bonked by some dumbass columnist hurling it back—and the tragic figure here won’t be the columnist, who’s just doing his job as assigned by America’s ideological fates, as predictable as the sun and the moon and the sand. It will be the next Democrat who tries, confident in his or her belief that this time the job can finally get done once and for all. Their tragedy will be that, in aiming to get that job done, he or she won’t do the real job, one that is actually much more attainable, the task appointed to Democrats by history: making America a more fair and decent and sustainable place, via unapologetically liberal policies—which are the only ones that ever actually work, no matter what some dumbass columnist says.

Zoe Carpenter draws attention to the real victims of the government shutdown.

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