Fans of both men will be upset, but the political similarities between the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and the 2012 Republican presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are more than striking.
True, Dukakis, a self-proclaimed “card-carrying member” of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a cerebral reformer, embraced by reformers and liberals. And Perry, whose unspectacular academic record at Texas A&M did not prevent him from becoming the Lone Star State’s first “Aggie” governor, is the heartthrob of the Tea Party as well as a human Oreck in sucking up funds in corporate suites.
Like all humans, Dukakis and Perry are both products and prisoners of the places from which they come. For Dukakis, for all but four years at college and two in the Army, that was Brookline, Mass., a town known and envied for its good schools, green spaces and clean government. But Brookline’s politics were something else. Consider this: George McGovern, who as the Democratic nominee in 1972 lost 49 states to Richard Nixon, still won 62 percent of the votes in Brookline. Ronald Reagan, who won 44 states the first time and 49 the second time, won just 30 percent of the votes in Brookline. It’s a good bet that Dukakis did not know anyone personally who had voted for Reagan — which ill-prepared him for a national race.
For Perry, it is his home state that he left — for part of his five-year Air Force tour of duty — when he served as a C-130 transport pilot attaining the rank of captain. Perry’s Texas is as politically unrepresentative of the nation’s politics as Dukakis’ Brookline. There are 29 elected statewide officeholders in Texas, including nine justices of the state Supreme Court, and every one of them is a Republican.
In the Texas state House of Representatives, the GOP has more than a 2-to-1 majority. While Democrats have won three of the last five presidential elections, no Democratic presidential nominee has carried Texas in the past 35 years. It’s a pretty good bet that Perry doesn’t know anyone socially who voted for President Barack Obama, the only Democrat other than Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in the past 180 years to win more than 50.1 percent of the national vote.
Understand that George W. Bush came from a different Texas. He had to defeat a popular Democratic incumbent, Ann Richards, to win the governorship. The legislature he confronted was controlled by Democrats, with whom Bush had to (and did) get along. As an indication of his awareness of Democratic voters, Bush, you will recall, ran for national office billing himself as a “compassionate conservative” and advocating a federal No Child Left Behind law to improve public education.
When you live in a one-party political bubble like Perry has, you don’t pay any political price for saying really dumb things, like suggesting in Cedar Rapids that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s policies could be “almost treasonous” and adding, “I don’t know what you all would do to him in Iowa; we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas” — a reckless and conspicuously insensitive remark to all who remember the “wanted for treason” newspaper ad that welcomed another Washington officeholder’s tragic visit to Texas in November 1963.
How about, “I think you want a president who’s passionate about America — who’s in love with America”? Was Perry suggesting that Obama does not love America? “You need to ask him.” Those are the words of an unthinking man unprepared for a national race with its intensity of scrutiny, a man who has not been held accountable in a competitive political environment for what he says.
Consider this fair warning for Republicans who want to win back the White House: Rick Perry could well be your Michael Dukakis of 2012.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.