The 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was rumored to be up for the interim replacement for John Kerry if and when the Senator resigns to become the Secretary of State. The 79-year-old Dukakis declined the post, but the gossip kept attention focused on the former Massachusetts governor. Actively stumping for Obama and Elizabeth Warren during the 2012 campaigns, Dukakis was as prominent in the public eye as any time in the last 25 years. Dukakis, who now teaches at UCLA and Northeastern University, recently spoke about health care, the economy and life as an almost-president.

Washington Monthly: What do you think of the fiscal cliff negotiations?

Michael Dukakis: Look, I’ve always assumed that at the 11th hour they would resolve this thing. The whole thing is kind of ridiculous, but apparently we have some folks in the House who think that sticking with their ideology is more important than making sure we move forward. It’s a particularly important time to do that. The economy is improving—I’m quite optimistic about the next four years from an economic standpoint. This is just absurd, and if in fact they cause another fight on the debt level, which of course the Republicans have raised repeatedly, that would be even more absurd. I hope wise heads will prevail, and we’ll finally get this thing done.

WM: What would like to see happen over the next four years from a policy standpoint? What should be our priorities?

MD: We’re going to have to implement the health bill. That’s important. It’s going to take time. We’ve had a pretty good experience in Massachusetts, demonstrating that you can do that effectively and pretty quickly, and we’re now at about 99% coverage in the state, and everyone seems to feel pretty good about it. I don’t see a reason why the same thing can’t happen nationally. Nor do I think the states that are resisting Medicare expansion are going to be able to continue that. The pressure on them from health care providers alone, I think, is going to be huge. Look at Texas: 25% of its people are uninsured. That’s a huge amount of free care that’s being provided by hospitals, without reimbursement and raising rates on everybody else to cover these folks who are coming to the emergency room without any insurance. And so making sure the Affordable Care Act is implemented effectively is going to be a huge responsibility.

And then I would hope we would move to a serious rethinking about where we’re going on the national security front. We’re spending incredible amounts of money on military hardware that has nothing to do with the threats that we currently face. This is a Cold War budget and the Cold War’s over. We’re dealing with a serious terrorist threat, but one that has nothing to do with F-35s or super-carriers 837 American military bases in 130 countries. I don’t know when we decided to be the world’s policeman, but we don’t do a very good job of it, and we can’t pay for it. We’ve also got to strengthen international peacekeeping operations and international institutions. In the South China sea, for example, we’ve got half a dozen countries all arguing over who owns islands, and the place to resolve those disputes is the International Court of Justice, and we ought to be strongly urging them to go there.

WM: What do you think of the health care bill? Was it a good bill?

MD: I certainly would have preferred something like the Nixon bill, which by the way was the model for the bill that I signed as Governor of Massachusetts in 1988, only to have Bill Weld do everything he could to screw it up, unfortunately successfully. And it was the model for the Hawaiian system, which has been in effect since 1975 and has worked extremely well, and which would basically put us in a place to contribute to health insurance in the workplace and then expand Medicaid for the unemployed. Given the whole struggle, and given the success of the Massachusetts approach, which is essentially the Affordable Care Act at the state level, I’m quite optimistic. Not only that, but a lot of people have ignored the fact that the bill provides for a substantial increase in the support for the Community Health Centers, which are already serving20 million people. Under the bill, they’ll have the potential to serve 40 million, so that network of Community Health Centers, which by the way George Bush liked, is going to go a long way towards covering that remaining 12 million that weren’t touched by the Affordable Care Act. So given our experience in Massachusetts, I’m quite optimistic that this will work.

WM: You stumped pretty hard for Obama in 2012. What did you think of the election as a whole?

MD: Remember also that Kitty and I were deeply involved in Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. It was the best election night I’ve ever experienced, including my own victories [laughs]. I’m serious. I thought it was a terrific result, obviously coming from where I come from. There’s a reason Mitt Romney loss Massachusetts by 23 percent points: we’ve seen him in action. In fact, I think only John Fremont in 1856 lost his home state by a greater margin. So the prospect of a Romney presidency was [laughs] frightening, to put it mildly. We also had huge battles in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth is I think going to be a terrific Senator.

And in both the national and Senate race in our state, serious grassroots made the difference. Frankly, I hope that my party now gets that. I’ve been [laughs] rather obsessively hammering this line for a long time. If after the result we had in the Massachusetts in the Senate race and the result we had in the presidential race hasn’t convinced Democrats that precinct-based grassroots organizing is the way to win elections, then we don’t understand just how important that is. I hope and expect we do, and I don’t think we ought to buy into this notion that in the off-year inevitably the party that is in power loses seats. I think we have a real chance to take the House back. And I think that effort ought to begin the day after tomorrow, on a precinct-based, grassroots level, which is where the president won this election, and where Elizabeth Warren won this election.

WM: You don’t think the redistricting that the Republicans have done will prevent that?

MD: It’s a problem, and it’s outrageous, and voter suppression is, too. And Citizens United is one of the two or three worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. But I think clearly at the national level, and certainly in my state, we demonstrated without any question that if you’re serious about grassroots organizing at the precinct level, you can win, and you can beat big money anytime. That’s something we Democrats have to understand, and we have to practice that every election cycle. Quite frankly, we haven’t been doing it, except in the presidential campaigns, and some Congressional and Senatorial campaigns. But the Warren campaign stands out as being a great example of that. I’ll take a little bit of credit for that, but not much. She deserves it, because she listened, and she said, “okay that’s what we’re going to do.” On election day, she had 26,000 volunteers out. That was the culmination of an increasingly powerful grassroots campaign that just blew Brown out of there. Not surprisingly, he had money, but no grassroots support. In fact, he was bringing young people in from DC, which gives you just some sense of how weak his grassroots support was in comparison to hers.

WM: How do you think Obama has been as a president?

MD: I think he’s been a very good president, under very difficult circumstances. But I think we all ought to hang our heads in shame for allowing Republicans to take over the House in 2012, which has made it extremely difficult for him to implement his program, and to move ahead. Now, one would hope and expect that given the results in November, people understand what happened and will begin to be supportive of what he wants to do. It’s obviously the folks in the House have no interesting in even meeting him [laughs] even 25% of the way. But elections are supposed to have consequences–and I think this will.

WM: As you know, the first President Bush is sick, and I know this is something that personal to you. How are those feelings from the 1988 election decades on? There’s that famous quote about Walter Mondale in 1984 asking George McGovern, “When do you get over losing the presidency?” and McGovern responds, “I’ll let you know when it happens.”

MD: [Laughs] That hasn’t been my experience. Obviously it was a huge disappointment. I thought I blew that election, and I blew it primarily because I made a decision—my decision, and nobody else’s–that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign, and if there one lesson to be learned from ’88, it is that you just can’t do that. The guy’s going to come at you, and you have to have a carefully thought-out plan to deal with it. Preferably one that turns his attack campaign into a character issue on him. That’s easier said than done, but that’s what you have to try and do. So I don’t think it was anyone’s fault but my own that I lost that election.

In any event, we’re all big boys and girls. I’d been in elected politics for 25 years by that time, and you can’t walk around moaning and groaning about the result, or carrying this thing forever. At some point–in my case, I had to go back to my state and govern as the national economy was slipping into a recession again. But fortunately, after my third and last term as governor, I decided to teach at Harvard’s Kennedy School and I’ve been at Northeastern for 25 years, and now UCLA and it’s been a wonderful experience with a terrific group of young people. And at the same time, I’m able to keep my hand in and stay involved politics and policy. I’m very sorry about the election—if we hadn’t had Bush I, we never would have had Bush II, and we wouldn’t be in this mess, so you can blame me for it. But Kitty and I have had a wonderful last 20 or 21 years, and even in our upper seventies, we feel as good as we ever have, and look pretty good, all things considered. We’re going to continue as long as we possibly can, and if we can participate to some extent as we did in this election, so much the better.

WM: Your name was tossed around to take Senator Kerry’s seat. It seems like you took yourself out of the running. What happened with that?

MD: I’ve got a commitment to teach at UCLA, there are 80 students waiting for me to show up here. I take that seriously. Frankly, look, we’ve got lots of people to be good interim Senators. I’m concerned about making sure that the next Senator from Massachusetts is a solid progressive Democrat. That’s what Kitty and I are going to focus on.

WM: Is there anyone you’d particularly like to see in there?

MD: Ed Markey has already announced. He’s a terrific guy, and I’m a big fan of his. He’d be a great candidate, and a great Senator. I don’t know who else is going to announce, but he should be out there in front, and working hard at it, and more power to him.

Jordan Michael Smith

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at