Beaming over the convention of the consonant caucus, the speaker uttered what would be the second most memorable line in the 1988 presidential race: “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence…” This dramatic statement was later bested by George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips…” tax pledge.
Atlanta’s Democratic National Convention that July proved to be, in retrospect, the last stand for Michael S. Dukakis, the last traditional progressive. As progressivism gallops to a new beat of populism, modern-day revivalists should look to Dukakis as their godfather.
He is last major living link to the progressive forefathers. Born in Brookline in 1933, he was also born into the first progressive era of Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson and Roosevelt. It would mark the first time the republic would rely upon government, not self-sufficiency, for sustenance, emblematic of modern times.
Citizens needed progress up from the Founders’ ideas. A strong central government, believing in its boundless abilities, could master public and private affairs, thereby delivering happiness. The Constitution was inelastic; its limitations were to be disdained as impediments to the very progress government sought to engineer. Politics became a science.
Dukakis’s long career in public service is writ large with progressive themes. In 1965, as a young Massachusetts state representative, he introduced a measure to legalize contraceptive use for married couples, an early imprimatur of his activism. For the commonwealth’s conservative Catholic bloc in the House, however, voting on birth- control laws written by Protestants in the 1890s proved to be controversial and complicated. Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing, remarkably, advised its members in the legislature: “If your constituents want this legislation vote for it. You represent them. You don’t represent the Catholic Church.” The bill passed.
Arguably, this episode — more than John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election to the presidency — helped convert a majority of Catholics from Republicans to Democrats in Massachusetts. Suddenly, it seemed, culture impacted Catholic politics as much as theology. Those majorities remain intact today. Dukakis was elected to the first of three terms starting in 1974 and he remains Massachusetts’s longest-serving governor.
His first attempts as a reformer were rebuffed and he lost the 1978 primary. Not nonplussed, he was reelected in 1982 with an even more robust belief in government’s efficacy.
He originally opposed the initial concept of the Central Artery/Tunnel project in Boston but expanded its scope to accommodate business and government interests. Boston’s Big Dig cost nearly $4 million a day at its peak. Initially a $2.2 billion expenditure in the early 1980s, final estimated outlays are $22 billion, to be paid off in 2038. The administration of this public-private partnership exposed a skewed risk-reward model (socializing losses, privatizing profits).
Under his leadership, after delays and denial for exemption, Massachusetts was found to be in violation of the landmark Clean Water Act. Every day 100,000 pounds of sludge and 500,000 gallons of barely treated wastewater were dumped into Boston Harbor. A federal court, not political epiphany, ensured the cleanup.
Former EPA Administrator Michael Deland said that the commonwealth’s willful disobedience was “the most expensive public policy mistake in the history of New England.” Raw sewage stopped flowing into the nation’s oldest harbor in September 2000.
Dukakis in 2009 reflected on “two of the biggest projects in history at the time.” The harbor restoration — mandated, mind you — “came in on time and 25 percent under budget.” Of theBig Dig, he said: “We all know what happened with the other.”
The difference? “It was about competence of the people running the projects…”
Few remember that Al Gore (not the elder Bush) first raised the weekend-furlough matter during the presidential primary. Dukakis vetoed a bill in 1976 that would have denied murderers, like Willie Horton, such freedom. The program was ultimately abolished after questions were raised about criminal rehabilitation.
Before there was Obamacare and Romneycare there was Dukakiscare. He signed into law the nation’s first universal healthcare insurance program in 1988. A tiny Republican minority quietly disrupted its funding, leaving it an obscure footnote to history.
At 82, still residing in Brookline, still a progressive sanctuary, Dukakis leaves a lasting legacy. He has affected the lives of more residents in Massachusetts than anyone in a century. Clearly, that is a triumph of ideology over competence. As government at all levels struggles with executing competent stewardship, people should look at Dukakis in another light. He at least addressed competence as a core competency.
New-fashioned progressives have abandoned it.
James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer for the New Boston Post. and a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times.