Dukakis backs Obama for US presidency

It is 20 years since a US presidential election has been watched as closely in Greece as the current contest between senators Barack Obama and John McCain. In 1988, Greeks were watching because one of their own, then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was running as the Democratic candidate. Despite a good early showing in the polls, Dukakis fell victim to what he has called the Republican «attack machine» and ended up trailing George H.W. Bush by almost 8 percent in the final vote. In the full version of an interview that appeared in Athens Plus on October 31, Dukakis explains why he is convinced that the Democrats have learned from the mistakes of the past and in Obama have a candidate that can deliver what the American people want. With a few days to go to November 4, how do you see this election going? I’m cautiously optimistic but I’m always concerned about these polls – they’re all over the place. I think from Obama’s standpoint, he has to put the pressure on and keep it on for the next week. He has the best field organization that I’ve seen since Kennedy and McCain has no field operation, so that’s a big plus for Obama. But the Republican attack campaign has been as tough as it’s ever been. They’re accusing him of being a socialist or a communist or a Marxist or something and this is going to go right down to the wire. But I think if Obama’s people keep doing what they’ve been doing and there’s no let up and no complacency, I think he’s going to be OK. Obama seems to have run a remarkable campaign, given where he was at the start of the year. The importance of the grassroots campaign is something that you’ve talked a lot about. Is that where you attribute the success of his campaign so far? I think it’s a combination of things. He’s turned out to be an excellent person and an excellent candidate. I think by the time the third debate was over, people were beginning to conclude that he was the thoughtful, steady, mature candidate and it was McCain that you had to worry about. That’s a tribute to Obama himself and what he did in those debates. I don’t think there is any question that the field operation has been a big, big factor and I’m delighted he has thrown this red/blue [states] stuff in the ashcan, which is where it belongs anyway. It’s nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both parties would buy into this stuff. I think he has a very good chance of taking Colorado and New Mexico, and I’ve just seen some new numbers on Nevada that look very good, and conceivably North Dakota and Montana. They are all places mostly populated by middle-income, working people and the Democratic Party has, in effect, conceded those without even a fight over the course of the past 10 or 15 years, which is really a disgrace. A lot of these states we basically threw away and it made no sense at the time. He’s the first candidate in a long time to understand that. But his personal qualities have come through here in a very impressive way. Are his personal qualities where you think Obama has a very big advantage over McCain or has McCain made mistakes in his campaign? For one thing, McCain’s campaign has been much less organized and he has no field operation, so that’s a huge advantage for Obama. Secondly, if you ever work with McCain, you discover he’s a difficult guy to work with. He’s temperamental, he’s got a quick temper – when Governor [Tommy] Thompson, who is chairman of the Amtrak board of governors, and I went to see him, he threw us out of his office. He’s had the reputation and you see that from time to time in the campaign. Whereas Obama has been relaxed, he’s been steady, he’s mature, he’s thoughtful. He seems to have the kind of good sense and stability to him that we’re going to need, particularly at this point in time. I think a lot of people who didn’t know much about Obama and thought he was young and inexperienced have concluded something different. Going negative You have gone on record many times as saying that George Bush Sr’s negative campaign is what led to him beating you in the race for the White House in 1988. In an interview earlier this year you referred to the Greek saying «pathima mathima» in reference to the Democrats learning from the experiences that you and John Kerry had. Has your party learned well? Yes. If you look at the speech that Obama made right after the North Carolina primary when he clinched the nomination, he spent about 10 minutes talking about the kind of campaign that they would run run against him. So, they knew what was coming. Now, some of this stuff like the «palling around with terrorists» and the «socialism» stuff is ridiculous but that’s what they’re throwing out. If you’re going to deal with that kind of a campaign, you’ve got to have a strategy which you’ve thought out well in advance and preferably which turns the other guy’s attack campaign into a character issue for him. The Obama campaign has done that quite effectively. George Bush Sr hit you hard on a number of issues such as your prison furlough program, in the famous Willie Horton ad, as well as your positions on capital punishment, the pledge of allegiance and defense policy, when the Republicans mocked your appearance in a tank. Looking back on it now, do you think you were a little naive to open yourself up to these attacks and not to «fight fire with fire»? I don’t know if I was naive. I had been through two very tough, negative campaigns in Massachusetts – the first one I lost, the second one I won – and you’d have thought I learned from that. But this was the presidency, the Willie Horton attack stuff was unprecedented, at least in modern presidential elections. But it was my decision that we would not respond and it was a huge mistake, you can’t do that. In 1988, you sacked your campaign manager, John Sasso, over a negative ad about Joe Biden. Seeing as negative campaigning has pretty much become the norm, do you regret making that decision or do you think it set a healthy precedent for the Democrats? We saw for instance Samantha Power, one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers forced to resign after calling Hilary Clinton «a monster» earlier this year. In retrospect, I overreacted in John’s case. I think what I should have said is «Apologize to Biden, take a few days off and we’re never going to do that again.» I had made some statements about how I wanted to run a positive campaign in the primary and when you do that you set a standard for yourself. Is it difficult to run a clean campaign? Nobody who runs for the presidency of the United States will ever make the same mistake I made. You’d better expect right from the beginning, especially from these guys that are on the other side of the political line from us, that that’s going to be part and parcel of their campaign, particularly if it looks as if you are competitive or ahead of them. Clinton had a unit of about 10 people – half of them had worked for me in 1988 – that called themselves the Defense Department and all they did all day long was deal with those attacks and I think Obama probably has the same kind of operation. Going back to Joe Biden, he is now the vice-presidential candidate. Do you think that he was a good pick by Obama? Yes, very much so and in very sharp contrast to Palin for obvious reasons. The VPs If the Republicans lose, do you think Sarah Palin has the ability to be a force in American politics in the future? She will be with the right but she’s just out of her league. She may be an OK governor but she has not helped McCain. In fact, she’s hurt him badly, especially with uncommitted voters and now she’s making some very dumb political mistakes. She’s still talking about this wardrobe thing. They want to get that thing out of there and she keeps talking about it. I’ve been there – running for president is the toughest thing you’ll ever have to do and when you are suddenly thrust into it when two years ago you were the mayor of a town with 10,000 people, it’s not easy. Of course, it’s often said that the vice-presidential pick will not win you the White House and it’s clear that this election has been affected by much bigger issues such as the financial crisis. Does Obama have the right policies to deal with the big issues? In this case, McCain’s selection of Palin has hurt him badly. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It has particularly hurt him among independents and uncommitted people. So the selection does make a difference. There are two particular things that are impressive about Obama. The first thing is that he has a very different world view from the people that have been running the country for the past eight years. I think he understands that we’re facing a multipolar world, that the worst thing the United States ever did was to start calling itself the world’s only superpower – the Greeks have a word for that: hubris [arrogance, overbearing pride] – and it got us into big trouble. Obama is a guy who understands that if you’re going to exercise leadership in the world of tomorrow it has to be a collaborative kind of leadership, it can’t be a «my way or the high way» kind of thing, which is what these guys Bush, [Dick] Cheney, have essentially pursued. I think Obama understands this in part because of how he grew up and where he grew up – in Hawaii, the most multiracial, tolerant state in the country and then in Indonesia. So, he grew up with this world view and sense of what others are like. So, I think you are going to see very significant changes in American foreign policy. On the domestic front, he’s a good mainstream Democrat but after what’s happened economically to us I think these days of people that say «Shrink government, get it out of the way and let the market work» are over, or at least I hope they’re over. Talk about «pathima mathima,» if we’ve learned anything it’s that we have to regulate financial institutions. So I think that you’re going to see very different domestic policies as well. In view of the financial crisis, are Obama’s proposals for a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans realistic? Given what’s happening, I don’t know that there’s any room for tax cuts at this point. I would much rather put our resources into job-creating public infrastructure, which we desperately need. This country’s infrastructure is in lousy shape. The contrast between European infrastructure, the metro in Athens for example, its condition, its state of repair and what we’re doing here is dramatic. The best way in my opinion to get back on track around here, in addition to some serious regulation of financial institutions, is to put people to work rebuilding the infrastructure of this country. We need a first-class rail passenger system, we need to invest in public transportation, our roads and bridges are a mess. I’d much rather use our resources to do that than give people a few bucks. We tried that with this $160 billion stimulus package and it was a bust. Giving $600 checks to people – what does that do? That $160 billion pumped into public infrastructure could have put 3 million people to work rebuilding this country and you’d have something to show for it at the end. My preference is to invest in job-creating public infrastructure, straighten out this financial mess and we can worry about the tax cuts later. The economy has almost overshadowed every other issue, such as the war in Iraq, over the last few weeks. But on foreign policy, Americans seem to be faced with two very different choices. How do you see the differences between the two candidates? It’s like night and day. McCain is a child of the Cold War. He thinks there are enemies everywhere. His statement that he wouldn’t talk to the Spanish prime minister was unbelievable. [Jose Luis] Zapatero may have opposed the Iraq war, as did 70 percent of us here in the US, but he’s got 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, he’s a member of NATO and McCain won’t talk to him. When [Former Secretary of State] Jim Baker headed up the Iraq Study Group, he said that you’ve got to talk to the Iranians and you’ve got to talk to the Syrians. You’ve got to talk to people. McCain is worse than Bush on this kind of stuff. Why do you say that? Because, as I said, he’s a child of the Cold War and he thinks there are enemies everywhere. He talked about obliterating the North Koreans, he sang songs about bombing Iran. That’s not the kind of foreign policy that this country needs. He was a strong supporter of the war right from the beginning. I think that was the dumbest decision we’ve made in the history of American foreign policy. Greece Sticking with the issue of foreign policy, Obama and Biden appear to have courted the Greek-American vote by adopting public positions on several issues that affect Greece. Would their presidency be good for Greece and Greek Americans? Well I certainly think so and hope so and I’ve had a lot to do with that along with many other Greek Americans. The most important thing for us is to start listening to our friends and allies. You don’t announce a decision on the Macedonia situation the day after you get elected in 2004 without even consulting Greece and the Greek Americans. That’s unacceptable. One of the things I hope and expect that we’ll get from Obama and Biden if they win is an administration that sits down with our friends and allies and uses their knowledge and suggestions. We had that to some substantial extent under Clinton but over the last eight years it’s been about as bad as it’s ever been. In addition to specific stuff that they’ve already committed to, I want leadership in this country that values and respects our allies and who they are and what they say and the advice they provide to us. I think that under these two guys, we’ll get that. You mentioned President Bush and the amount of damage you think he’s done over the last eight years. Going back to your acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1988, you made reference to a pledge taken by ancient Athenians, which began with the line «We will never bring disgrace to this, our country.» Do you feel George W. Bush has brought disgrace on America? Oh yes. I think our international reputation is in tatters. I think it can be repaired very quickly. If Obama wins next Tuesday, you will see a sea change in attitudes toward the United States on the part of the international community. I think people are intrigued by this guy. I think they respect him, I think they’re impressed with him the more they see of him and his world view is such that almost overnight you are going to see a change in the attitude toward the US. ABM base Take this whole Russian thing. I never quite understood NATO expansion. NATO was created to prevent the Soviet Union from invading Europe. It’s now 2008, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist and there is no chance under the sun that the Russians are going to be invading Western Europe. So, what is this all about? An ABM (anti-ballistic missile) base in Poland – what is that all about? Did Europe ask for an ABM in Poland to help protect them from Iran? And everyone knows the system doesn’t work anyway. This is $4 billion that we don’t have. If the Warsaw Pact was still around and Mexico and Canada announced that they were going to join the Warsaw Pact and the Russians said, «By the way, we’re going to put an ABM right over the border from Texas,» we’d consider it an act of war. What is the point of this? I don’t understand it. We need the Russians and they need us and we’re going to have some disagreements but the Russia of today is infinitely to be preferred to the Russia of Joseph Stalin. We’ve got to look at what we’re doing. Do you expect Russia or anyone else to test Obama if he wins the election? No, I think they will welcome his presidency, especially if he and Biden and the people around him reach out to the Russians, the Syrians or whoever. We’ve got the opportunity now for an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. Is the United States involved? Not at all. Syria wants the United States involved but we’re not involved. Why? Are we upset at Syria? You can’t conduct foreign policy that way, in my opinion. There is an enormous opportunity not only to restore our reputation in the world but to reach out to a lot of people that this administration has refused to talk to and make a huge difference. I think the world would welcome this enthusiastically from the United States. After winning the Democratic nomination in 1988, you led Bush Sr in the opinion polls. Are there moments, private moments, when you still sit and think to yourself about what could have been? No, you can’t do that forever. I’m clearly still upset at myself for losing. I still say to people that if I’d beaten old man Bush, you’d never have heard of the kid and we wouldn’t be in this mess. I joke around when I say that but you can’t relive this thing. You have to go on with life. Let’s end our discussion looking forward: What would an Obama victory mean for the USA and the world? I guess what most people will want to know is if there is real substance behind his obvious style. The answer to that question is unquestionably yes. You don’t become president of the Harvard Law Review because you’re an empty suit. He’s bright, he’s perceptive and he’s an excellent listener. I was very impressed with the fact that when he went to Iraq, he took senators Jack Reed (Dem) and Chuck Hagel (Rep), with him. In fact, I spoke to Reed about this today. Here are two guys, Reed is a West Pointer and Hagel is a Vietnam combat veteran, who are very good. The fact that Obama took them with him to Iraq tells me something about this guy. There’s a lot of substance there and one of the things this campaign has done is to help people understand that, and they’re impressed.