by Paul Deines
It’s been several weeks, but I’ve come to the end of Richard Ben Cramer’s massive tome What It Takes, a frantic and granularly detailed chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign. Cramer – who died this past January – embedded himself with several campaigns, including that of the eventual victor, Vice President George H.W. Bush. His focus is right in the title: what does it takes to make the most ambitious leap any American politician can?
One can’t help but be in awe of the brash prose, which moves at the clip of an over-caffeinated, underslept campaign worker and doesn’t quarter even a tiny amount of readerly laziness. The ingenious structure of What It Takes evokes the national consciousness from World War II to Morning in American, simultaneously relating the events of the ’88 primary campaign and leaping into the past to explore what shaped each contender. And what contenders! Cramer deep dives into the psyches, strategies, ideals and flaws of one future president and many ambitious nearly-was-es: Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart. Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon and Pat Robertson linger in the margins.
I’ve long been interested by the men who nearly were president, but for whatever reason couldn’t close the deal. And Massachusetts has a rich ambiguous of producing contenders: let’s explore this for a moment.
Of the last seven losing presidential candidates,
three have held major office for Massachusetts. The first President not to win
reelection was a constitutional delegate of Massachusetts. That President’s son
would himself fall short in a run for chief executive, though he would prevail
in his second attempt.
Then he failed to win reelection. In fact, only one of the four Massachusetts
men who held the Presidency has been reelected. This was Governor Calvin
Coolidge, who was never elected to begin with, but rather succeeded Warren J.
Harding after the latter’s death. None have served a full eight years.
 Fair warning: it’s an astonishing book, but at 1,050 pages it only just gets the reader to the party conventions. But the maddening fixation on each seemingly minor blip in the campaign makes the folding of each candidate feel like a death. It’s masterful, and the Bob Dole sections, in particular, are heart-wrenching.
 Which for our purposes means major party candidate.
 Via the “Corrupt Bargain,” mind you. This was the election of 1824, in which four candidates essentially split the electoral college four ways, with Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams in the lead. Quincy Adams was awarded the Presidency by the House of Representatives, even though Jackson led him in electoral delegates after the vote.
To lay it out in stark terms.
We’ve had four Massachusetts politicians become President: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.
And four failed runs: Daniel Webster, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney.
Not awful numbers, but in the last quarter century, Massachusetts has been a poor incubator for Presidential candidates. Most recently, we saw the unfortunate candidacy of one Willard ‘Mitt’ Romney, who on paper seemed perfectly poised to unseat the incumbent Barack Obama. He was a proud corporate ambassador, an unflinching proponent for the free market in the midst of a tepid recovery. For a nation that felt collectively disappointed with a not-as-transformational-as-we-hoped president, we weren’t willing to make the leap.
In 1988, the American public seemed fed up with the Reagan brood, swatting it down with the twin embarrassments of Iran-Contra and Robert Bork. Michael Dukakis led Reagan’s successor by double digits after the Democratic National Convention, but his popular support dissipated in the three months that followed. The conventional argument is that Bush and his campaign manager Lee Atwater waged a scorched earth strategy against a cold-fish opponent.
But I feel like there’s something to both these men – Romney and Dukakis – who were tin-eared, but not weak. I suspect that exploring why each man fell short in his quest for the presidency could reveal what we as a country look for in our leaders.
 Romney never got above a 4-point lead in any general election poll (Pew, 10/4-10/7) and this was in the aftermath of the first debate, ruled at the time a disastrous Obama performance.
So, let’s start with what Romney and Dukakis have in common: their highest elected office.
Their careers prior to governorship could not have been more different. Romney was one of the ‘80s business impresarios that shifted all focus to the investor. He co-founded Bain Capital, bought up struggling companies and – among other things – gave us Staples. In 1994, he didn’t quite beat Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat, but he reemerged in 2002 to resuscitate the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Then in 2003, he became Massachusetts’ 70th governor.
Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, came to the governorship by way of the State House of Representatives. He was a reformer, determined to break up the Boston-Brahmin political machine. Yet his path to City Hall was paved in old-school political maneuvering, in which he positioned himself first for attorney then for lieutenant governor for 1970 election (then lost). In 1974, he was elected Massachusetts’ 65th governor.
Dukakis was a good-government Democrat presiding at the height of the Reagan revolution in a state making that transition from northeast conservative to McGovern-style progressive (Dukakis was, in fact, a foot soldier in McGovern’s 1972 bid). As governor in the 1980s, he slashed every state service to the bone so that he wouldn’t have to raise taxes. Liberal groups savaged him as a Democrat in name only, and he eventually had to bump up rates to cover the budget shortfall. He made his name as a chief executive with common sense reforms aimed at making the state run well for its citizens: showily collecting revenue from tax-evaders and providing day-care and subsidized rail-passes for welfare-recipients seeking job training. The result was the much-publicized Massachusetts Miracle, a seemingly perfect corrective to the go-it-alone conservatism of Reagan and Bush. How could it not resonate with voters?
 Like Bill Clinton, he would fail to win reelection, only to bounce back with a new pragmatic third-way vision of politics.
Well, the reality is that neither Dukakis nor Romney was especially excited to discuss his record. Think of one moment in 2012 when Mitt Romney mentioned being governor. You’d think he transitioned from Bain Capital to the campaign trail, with only a brief stop in Salt Lake to save Olympics. He was a neocon, really, but also governor of deep-blue Massachusetts. He did what he could to pass an agenda, which meant pursuing things Democrats would sign on for: universal healthcare, for example.
For a big, sweeping assumption about national prejudices, I subscribe to Gail Collins’ assessment that America’s political dialogue can be understood as an argument between crowded and empty places. In recent years, I’ve noticed an equating of the rural and sprawling suburban experience as the American experience, and I feel like there’s a level of distrust for any politician associated closely with a large (read: corrupt) city.
Massachusetts is one of those states where the capital is also the largest city. Boston is the fifth most populous capital in the nation, a city repeatedly riven with racial and social conflict, high crime rates, and systemic corruption. It’s a college town, a sports town, a town with a deep – I would argue alienating – sense of itself. Any governor of Massachusetts is invariably associated with Boston, while a governor of, say, Texas is not immediately linked with Austin, or even Houston. When you’re trying to appeal to the whole country at once, Boston isn’t necessarily the association you want.
So, both Dukakis and Romney made the error of deciding that they
could run for President without revealing to the country how their life experiences informed their political beliefs. Why would that be?
Both had that presumptive frontrunner thing in their respective primaries, which meant they took the safest possible route to the nomination, which turned out to be a long route. In 1988, there were upward of 30 Democratic debates and one joint Democrat/Republican primary round-table.
The 20 Republican debates in the run-up to 2012 were widely considered high comedy, marked by an increasingly hilarious procession of would-be challengers: Michelle Bachmann, Hermann Cain, Rick Santorum:
Dukakis’s challengers were on average more substantive, but each managed to combust in a remarkably embarrassing way; Gary Hart via sex romp, Biden via plagiarism. All the while, Dukakis stuck with the tactic of keeping his head down and gathering up delegates. It took him until well after Super Tuesday to secure the nomination, and even then Rev. Jesse Jackson refused to release his delegates at the convention in Atlanta.
Romney secured his delegates by May, well in advance of his convention. Like Dukakis, he had remained disciplined throughout an unpredictable primary season but emerged somewhat diminished by the company he was forced to keep.
Really neither Dukakis nor Romney had a massive, game-ending screw-up, like an inadvisable VP choice. I believe even an ideological opponent would agree the two men were, at minimum, competent campaigners. If anything, both were contending with the distant memory of his party’s deeply unpopular former president: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Both also had backbenchers (Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson; Marco Rubio and Chris Christie) willing to outshine and undermine the nominee to burnish their own reputations.
So, the Democrats in ’88 and the Republicans in ’12 were left with nominees they knew were intelligent and accomplished, but the public would never be able to explain exactly why they were up to the job of president. Neither man was willing to identify himself beyond the minimum possible level. In What It Takes, Cramer describes a scene in which Dukakis cannot understand why his wife Kitty’s pill addiction would be a campaign issue, even as Kitty insists she go public to start a conversation about prescription drug dependency. While Vice President Bush was addressing his “wimp” problem by discussing his war service and the death of his daughter, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Dukakis, too, had lost someone close to him prematurely, his beloved older brother Stelian.
 Another agonizing passage in What It Takes. Stelian was Michael’s role model and a star athlete. Freshman year of college, he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to return home. Stelian was crippled with mental illness for the rest of his abbreviated life. As Michael began his political career, Stelian would on occasion rage from the street against his younger brother. Stelian was struck by a car and killed in 1973.
The same is true of Mitt Romney, who was bedeviled by the notion that his wealth rendered him aloof to ordinary Americans’ concerns, which, admittedly, was rooted in the fact of his business success. Nonetheless, in the 1960s, Romney had spent nearly three years living the ascetic life of a Mormon missionary in France, during which time he nearly died in a car accident that killed the wife of the mission president. Of course Romney never discussed this – not least surely because of what a painful memory it is – though it refuted this notion that he did not understand want, suffering or loss.
Not discussing personal hardship is the prerogative of any candidate, but it left America open to define Dukakis by prisoner furloughs and tank rides and Romney by his 47 percent. This has a reverberation effect to what really matters most for every campaign: money and volunteers. In the end, these translate to votes.
Democrats traditionally benefit from a high turnout, and – even though Dukakis and Bush were evenly funded – the turnout in ’88 was the lowest in over a half-century. Reports in the days before Election Day 2012 were of empty Romney offices and no coherent get out the vote plan for the Republicans. On November 6th, Romney’s custom-made volunteer-coordination system (ORCA) crashed for over an hour.
Stargazers may hate to admit it, but there is a connection between the ability to raise money and organize supporters and the ability to be President. The grueling, nonstop campaign of the challenger is a test to determine whether the contender can walk, chew gum, and about forty other things at the same time, all without tripping. It is a test of temperament and personal capacity.
Reading Cramer’s astonishing book, I realize that every presidential election involves two stages of decision from the voter. We choose the party nominee from a pool of candidates the way we would fill a job opening. We want a hard worker, someone clever and honest, of course, but we inwardly hope for someone who is attractive and magnetic as well.
That is the primary process; the general election hinges upon a smaller pool of voters, those who do not immediately pull the lever one party or the other. These persuadable undecideds aren’t, I think, looking for someone with a good résumé who wants a shot at that next big challenge. They want someone who looks them in the eye and says, in essence, “You see what I can do. I’m already your president. All you have to do is vote for me."