I’ve been waiting for it: the inevitable comparisons between the Massachusetts governor who ran for president (with my help) in 1988 and the former Massachusetts governor on his way to being the 2012 Republican nominee.
Now, I’ll admit that there is almost certainly something in the water in my old home state that leads every politician — or at least every senator and governor — to see a president in the mirror when they shave in the morning. There was Jack Kennedy, of course, and Sen. Ted Kennedy and the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, and don’t forget Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.
And now Mitt Romney joins the crowd most notable for its (literally) singular success.
But whether Romney ends up winning or losing (which would be my bet), his problems are very different from the last Massachusetts governor to top a ticket.
People forget, but Mike Dukakis was actually a pretty great primary candidate. He had a bad moment early on in Iowa, comparing their farming issues to the cranberry growers in Massachusetts, and he hated going on the attack (even then). But he had no problem connecting with regular people in the sort of intimate campaigning that defines the early contests.
Dukakis lived in a duplex. As governor of Massachusetts, he took the “T” — the subway — to work. He bought his clothes at the old Filene’s Basement. He liked traveling coach and staying at cheap hotels and eating a tuna sandwich for lunch. He didn’t want Secret Service protection. He fought with me about getting new suits for presidential debates. His wife, Kitty, didn’t drive a Cadillac, much less two of them.
He was a liberal. He was, as he put it, a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Willie Horton (for those who forget or never knew, the murderer who raped a woman while out on furlough) wasn’t a problem for Dukakis in the primaries, because primary voters weren’t about to abandon him for having a “too lenient” furlough policy. They attacked then-Sen. Al Gore the one time he raised the Horton issue, in New York, for something akin to racism.
No one ever asked whether Dukakis was “liberal enough” to be the nominee of a party dominated, in the primaries and caucuses, by liberals. It was only in the general election that he faced the question of being too liberal, and to his credit (or discredit, depending on your point of view), he answered it by upholding his views, sticking with his positions and refusing to become an attack dog who shifted all of the attention away from his own perceived weaknesses and onto George Bush’s. It was a terrible political strategy — but it also was a reflection of who he really was, and is, in terms of principles and policies.
In almost every way, Romney is different. As a primary candidate, he does face the question of whether he is conservative enough, and he’s answered it with some pretzel twists designed to appeal to conservative voters. That probably will get him to Tampa, but it will almost certainly create its own set of problems when he leaves with the Republican nomination.
You can see the ads: Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up? Will it be the guy from the Massachusetts days, who trumpeted his liberal credentials and his mother’s courage in taking a pro-choice position, or the conservative Romney, who has been out there trying to beat back the Santorum challenge. The “Etch A Sketch” comment by one of his aides created a furor it never would have in Dukakis’ case precisely because Romney watchers are on to the pretzel politics and alert for new twists to come. It would have been far easier for Dukakis to move to the middle than it will be for Romney, who has already done so much moving around and will almost certainly try anyway.
Romney has yet to figure out how to “seem” authentic (only in politics would we talk about “seeming authentic”) to average voters. Dukakis was the son of immigrants, an honest-to-goodness American-dream story. Romney is a multimillionaire son of a governor.
On the other hand, we know for a fact that Romney won’t lose a second of sleep running a negative campaign. On that score, for better or worse, depending on your calculus, he is certainly no Dukakis.
But the bottom line may be the same. During the darkest days of the Dukakis campaign, I remember studying grim polls with our beloved pollster, the late and brilliant Tubby Harrison, and trying to figure out what to do. Tubby said, more than once, that for all the flaws and mistakes and the rest, our candidate didn’t have any problem that just a few more points of unemployment wouldn’t solve. I expect that could be true this time around, as well.