Dukakis led the way

Tom Oliphant

December 26, 1990|By Tom Oliphant

BOSTON — TEN YEARS AGO, Massachusetts made two fateful political decisions in understandable frustration over the status quo -- it helped elect Ronald Reagan president, and it passed a proposal requiring property tax relief.

Eight years ago, Massachusetts made an equally fateful decision to return a man to the governor's office who kept the first two decisions from wreaking havoc on the lives of working families and the poor, thus on the state's economy.

Michael Dukakis, in his three terms, has shown how state government can promote economic growth and even redirect it toward neglected areas, while breaking ground in the design of programs that go beyond the traditional emphasis on the poor to sustain average citizens caught in the vicious cost-squeezes of modern life.

More than that, he has redefined the standards for integrity and excellence in a government that other states have been copying for years and that has been a model for more than one national policy -- welfare reform being only the latest. For those myopic, parochial bellyachers who don't understand that good government makes a difference, take a ride on the Red Line some morning to South Boston and then hop a shuttle to New York and try riding the D train to Brooklyn.

Or better yet, go to California. Out there, the voters ushered in the tax revolt in 1978, and gave their favorite son to the nation two years later. When Uncle Sam began abdicating his responsibilities, California sat on its hands. The result today is, an ineffectual governor limps out of office in a crumbling state. The public schools have declined, health care is a luxury, the housing crunch for normal people is appalling, pollution fouls the air and ocean, transportation is a joke, and the untouched budget deficit is stratospheric.

Sitting on his hands was never the Dukakis style. As a former governor, he opposed Proposition 2 1/2 ; as a returnee to office, he made it work. He not only kept his promise to give 40 percent of all state revenue increases to cities and towns; he changed the distribution formula again and again to steer as much new money as possible toward the places that needed it the most. From barely $2 billion in 1980, local aid soared past $4 billion last year. On top of that, Dukakis placed himself between the Reagan budget cuts and the people they could have ravaged; in the case of obliterated general revenue sharing, the loss was covered dollar for dollar.

He also broke ground in public policy. Until he acted in 1983, nobody had figured out how to mix jobs, training, child care and health care in a way that could change the lives of welfare mothers. Until he acted in 1975, no governor had ever successfully implemented a policy of partnership with business to steer growth toward the older cities that general prosperity tended to bypass.

Massachusetts has already demonstrated that universal health care for pregnant women works by saving lives as well as money; and eventually, common, as well as moral, sense will redeem its commitment to health insurance for all.

Obviously, the prosperity of the 1980s made his job easier. The sophomoric argument about the Massachusetts Miracle, however, obscures the fact that without the tough choices he made in his first term the rebound would have suffered, and that with the brilliant choices of his second and third terms the state helped keep the economy on course until larger regional and national forces worked their cruel will.

Dukakis came to office in 1975 in the middle of a vicious recession; he is about to leave it in the middle of another one. The passage of time has dulled the image of Francis Sargent's last budget deficit, a whopper by current standards; in time, Dukakis will also come into less warped perspective.

He is a world-class coalition-builder and grassroots politician whose failings as a leader kept him from the White House, but his stamp on government (his passion) is indelible.

Thomas Oliphant is a Boston Globe columnist.

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