The Luncheon Society/Gov. Michael Dukakis/Los Angeles-Napa Valley Grille, January 8, 2011/San Francisco-Fior D’Italia, March 11, 2011/ Boston–Sandrine’s June 3, 2011

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The Luncheon Society is not merely for lunch these days. In fact, a growing number of gatherings take place in the evening hours and perhaps serve as a welcome final stop before making the long journey home. We started adding nightly gatherings—out of necessity—to make the most out of our Manhattan soirées, but we quickly understood they could easily take place in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  If I catch a quick Southwest flight out of Oakland at 5PM, I can touch down in Burbank a hour later and find myself ready to host a dinner by 7PM.  Then it is back to reality the next morning with the 6 AM return flight back to the Bay Area. Life continues from there.

When I cannot host a luncheon or dinner, friends like Rucker Alex will pinch in and do a wonderful job, as was the case for the Dukakis gathering in Boston.

Over the years, nobody has joined The Luncheon Society more often than Mike and Kitty Dukakis.  The first gathering took place in January 1999, when a group of us flew down to Los Angeles for a quick luncheon. It has become tradition around here that the first gathering of the year (whether lunch or dinner in either San Francisco or Los Angeles) takes place with Mike and Kitty.

Over the years, Mike has usually been several steps ahead of the pack to tell Democrats that good ol’ boring precinct walking wins elections, even in a media state like California. Democrats surged in 2006 on building a 50 state strategy and the strength Obama’s win in such unlikely venues as North Carolina, and Virginia, resulted from grassroots leather on the ground.

Democrats had a short memory and in 2010, it showed.  However, those who remembered those basic grassroots lessons emerged victorious and such was the case with Colorado Senator Michael Bennett. Bennett, who to the surprise of everybody was chosen by Governor Bill Ritter to succeed Ken Salazar (who became President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior) had no natural political base.  He fought off a white knuckle challenge from the Speaker of the House and barely squeaked by in the general election against Tea Party Republican Ken Buck.  Bennett attributes his win to the Dukakis edict. He built an organization on the fly and won those crucial counties.

Dukakis was able to partially organize California in 1988 and reversed the Mondale rout from four years earlier and set the table for Clinton’s win in 1992.  Dukakis organized roughly 15,000 of the states 35,000 voter precincts and while Mondale lost the state by 1.5 million votes, Dukakis only lost the state by a slim 300,000. Clinton would win four years later by 1.5 million votes, effectively turning the state from red to blue on the national level.

I’ve always believed that Dukakis was too hard on himself when reflecting upon 1988. The candidate does not plan the strategy or execute the get-out-the-vote tactics—the campaign staff does.  Until 1992, Democratic strategists remained very green, not unlike the New York Mets of the early 1960’s, and got beaten often on the national playing field.  People forget that Democrats only won one presidential election between 1964 and 1992—and Carter barely won in 1976.  The Republicans, on the other hand, played with the same basic group since 1968.  Jim Baker ran the Ford campaign of 1976 and learned lessons that were parlayed in the 1984 Reagan reelection and 1998 Bush win. When Dukakis lost John Sasso in the early going, they lost their toughest operative.

Here is The Luncheon Society link from last year’s gathering with Mike Dukakis. Enclosed is a recent posting in Salon.com by Howard Medgal that is worth  a view.  Enjoy the post or read it below.

Dukakis on Obama, Palin and what might have been; Salon.com March 6, 2011 link

It turns out that one of the first people to figure out that George H.W. Bush’s famous “Read my lips: no new taxes” declaration would come back to haunt him in 1992 was Michael Dukakis — who came to the realization in December 1988, just a month after losing the presidential election to Bush.

“He really didn’t believe it,” he recalls. “He and I met in early December (after the election), at the vice president’s house. He was nice enough to invite me down.”

During their campaign, Dukakis had brought up a contentious issue — more vigorous enforcement by the IRS — and in their post-election meeting pointed out to Bush that the proposal could raise $110 million immediately.

“He said, ‘I really have to talk to Jim — meaning Baker — about this, because if I raise taxes my first year, they’ll kill me.’

“So, I’m sitting there,” an amused Dukakis continues, “still somewhat bruised, and I’m listening to this guy who’s been going all over the United States telling people to read his lips, and I’m thinking, ‘This guy thinks his commitment is for 12 months!

“Well, I didn’t say anything — the election was over. Well, by God, he raised them his second year, and we all know what happened.”

More than two decades after the Democrats’ 1988 standard-bearer suffered a shellacking, to use the in-vogue term, Dukakis is both self-effacing about the shortcomings that led to his national defeat and passionate about the ways he believes the Democratic Party can “focus on connecting with an overwhelming majority of Americans that seem to agree with us on fundamental issues, but are voting for other people.”

The former Massachusetts governor (he held the post for three terms between 1974 and 1990) spoke with Salon about topics past and present in a wide-ranging interview in his office at UCLA, where he spends his winters as a visiting professor of public policy. (He and his wife, Kitty, spend the rest of the year back in Brookline, Mass., in what he describes as “the governor’s mansion — half of a brick duplex.”)

For Dukakis, now 77, the loss to Bush represents both a personal failing and a simple miscalculation. It also serves as a Rosetta stone for understanding the successes and failures of his party nationally ever since.

Of the Bush campaign’s sharp attacks — which were punctuated by the notorious “Willie Horton ad” — that helped erode what was once a 17-point lead for the Democrat, Dukakis now says, “I did a lousy job of dealing with that. The first big mistake I made was making a decision I wasn’t going to respond to the Bush attack campaign. You cannot do that. Now, how you do it, how you turn an attack campaign into a character issue on the guy that’s doing it — which, ideally, is the best way to deal with it — it’s not easy.”

Dukakis is quick to point to the successes enjoyed by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and just as quick to contrast them with his own shortcomings. He credits Clinton with countering attacks far more intense than the ones he faced, and points out that Obama gave as good as he got in 2008.

“When you say to me, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Dukakis says, then pauses, shrugging his shoulders and seemingly incredulous at the thought that he unilaterally disarmed against Bush. “I don’t know. I’m a positive guy, I tried to run a very positive campaign in the primary, I thought people were tired of all the polarization we were getting under Reagan — but, in retrospect, to let Bush get away with all that stuff was just ridiculous, and nobody’s fault but my own.”

That you’re likely to hear a similar lament from Democrats in 2011 is just one example of how Dukakis believes his party — and his country — is guilty of ignoring history. He points to failure to organize a genuine grassroots campaign at the precinct level in ’88 — even though that kind of organizing had been crucial to his successful campaign to win back the Massachusetts governorship in 1982 — and argues that Democrats made the same mistake in last year’s midterm elections, despite Obama’s own success with grassroots organizing in 2008.

“Look at the congressional races,” he says. “How many candidates of my party did serious, precinct-based campaigns? Damn few of them. Which is one of the reasons why we got skunked. Now why, after Obama’s brilliant demonstration of how effective this was in ’08, every single Democratic member of Congress wasn’t out there developing a precinct-based organization — and as I’ve said a million times, it’s not rocket science; it’s a precinct captain, and six block captains in every precinct, making personal contact with every single voting household — why didn’t they do it? You’ve got all these consultants running around, who have never rung a doorbell in their life, and they don’t seem to take it seriously.”

It is fascinating to consider what a Dukakis victory in 1988 might have done to the trajectory of modern political history — and, as the man himself concedes, it probably wouldn’t have been pretty for his party, at least in the short term.

“Would we have gone into a recession, even if I’d been elected?” he asks. “Probably. I mean, the seeds were sown under Reagan. How can you have an economic policy like Reagan’s and not confidently predict there’s going to be a recession afterwards? If I’d been elected, we’d certainly have attacked the economic issues largely as Clinton did. With considerable success.”

In other words, the immediate political result of a Dukakis presidency might have been an acceleration of the “Republican Revolution,” in which the GOP swept to power in the House for the first time since the Eisenhower era. Instead of playing out in the 1994 midterm elections under Clinton, it might have occurred in 1990 under Dukakis.

In the public mind, Bill Clinton represented a break from Dukakis’ liberalism, but Dukakis says his administration would have looked a lot like Clinton’s did.

“A lot of my policies, my approach to them, would have been very similar to Clinton’s,” he contends. “I would have emphasized a national rail passenger system and heavy emphasis on infrastructure — though he was quite good on both those issues, I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to this stuff. And the health plan I would have proposed would have been very much the Nixon health plan.”

And maybe — just maybe — he could have gotten such a plan through Congress, which two decades ago was still populated with a chunk of moderate, pragmatic Republicans, like the late Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee. The more ideologically dogmatic GOP of today, Dukakis notes, “isn’t exactly Chafee and company,” but he still thinks it’s worth it for Obama to reach across the aisle.

“You make the effort,” he says, “and if folks just don’t want to sit down and come to a reasonable conclusion, you just go out and say, ‘The single most important priority is getting this economy back on track and getting people back to work, and what these guys are doing is going to have a profound effect on that.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that Obama shouldn’t also begin defining the Republican opposition now in advance of next year’s presidential race. Dukakis suggests that Obama steal a page from the playbook of Clinton, who began running television ads in the summer of 1995.

“I mean, [Clinton] had poor Dole on the floor, bleeding, a year in advance,” Dukakis says. “I think, given the opposition he’s likely to face, the corporate money pouring in, I’d make it an issue. I’d make the Koch brothers an issue — where’s that money coming from? I’d turn that into a plus, and early.”

Ask him about the Tea Party and the woman who is arguably its most prominent public face — Sarah Palin — and Dukakis reacts with bewilderment.

“I just don’t know,” he says. “I was asked to sit on a panel with a young Tea Party guy. And it was the first chance I had to sit down and listen — much of what he said was just factually inaccurate, didn’t make a lot of sense. And I’m somebody who’s a great believer in sitting down with folks. But I think you have to lay out the facts, see if you can get agreement on, if not the facts, at least on the problem.”

He does, however, see a potential silver lining for Democrats in the emergence of the Tea Party.

“It may get them into very big trouble politically, come 2012,” he says. “If [Palin] gets nominated, and she gets badly beaten, as I suspect will probably happen, then the Republican Party has no one but itself to blame.”

Nor does Dukakis have much regard for the nominal GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney, his fellow former Bay State governor.

“Remember, he was governor for about a year and a half, effectively,” Dukakis says. “I don’t know what to say about Romney. He isn’t his old man (former Michigan Gov. George Romney), I’ll tell you that, who I thought a lot of. I don’t know what motivates Romney — what his pollster told him last night?”

He’s also unimpressed with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is now being touted as something of a pragmatic GOP dark horse.

“Some reporter called me and said, ‘This guy Daniels, he’s emphasizing competence.’ And I said, ‘Wasn’t he George [W.] Bush’s OMB director his first two years? Wasn’t he the architect of this crackpot fiscal policy that now has given us a $14 trillion national debt? I mean, he’s a bright guy, I like him, but give me a break, will you?”

What the precise outcome will be is anyone’s guess, but next year’s presidential election will end with only one winner — and many losers, all of whom will suddenly have something in common with Dukakis. When he suffered his defeat in ’88, Dukakis sought counsel from Walter Mondale, who had suffered an even bigger defeat as the Democrats’ nominee four years earlier.

“It takes awhile,” he says. “Fritz used to say that he’d wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and he’d keep a stack of books next to his bed, and he’d just read. Look, it was very disappointing, and I was disappointed in myself. “

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

Salon.com article reprinted with permission

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