Fairly or unfairly, the former presidential candidate represents every political label that Democrats want their current candidate to avoid: liberal, soft-on-crime, tax-and-spend, and loser to a man named Bush.
To embrace him would surely dredge up unflattering memories of the oft-caricatured politician's amazing plummet in the 1988 campaign — and invite trouble for this year's nominee from Massachusetts: Sen. John Kerry (search), who served as Dukakis' lieutenant governor for two years.
"The first rule for the Democrats is to avoid a picture of John Kerry and Mike Dukakis together at all costs," said Rob Gray, a former spokesman for Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. "Dukakis' race was an embarrassment for the party. He blew a 17-point lead. And the party feels in retrospect that they nominated the wrong guy."
But Massachusetts Democrats say that ignoring Dukakis would be an injustice to a man who has served the party loyally for decades. Never again a political candidate, Dukakis has been a regular on the airwaves, defending the party and its candidates.
"He may have run a bad campaign, but he is not a bad person," said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who worked on Kerry's Senate campaigns. "He has never embarrassed himself, his state or his party. It would be a disservice to him to ignore him completely."
Although convention officials have not released their full slate of speakers for the July 26-29 convention, Dukakis is not expected to be high on the list.
Dukakis, who now keeps a low profile as a Northeastern University political science professor, said he has been told to keep a night open midweek for what he assumes would be a brief appearance with others to wave at the crowd.
"My own strong view on this is that those of us who have run before unsuccessfully ought to be around, ought to wave, ought to be introduced. But this ought to be John Kerry's convention," he said. "It is very important that this be Kerry's convention, as the one in Atlanta was mine. I screwed it up afterward, but the convention was great."
Every four years, both parties have to contend with the question of what to do with their own particular cast of presidential losers. Former President Jimmy Carter was shunned for two decades after his crushing 1980 defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan, before being honored with a video tribute in 2000. The 1972 loser, George McGovern, has been a guest at previous conventions but not given any kind of a prominent role.
Two of the three Republicans who lost over the past 30 years are former presidents — George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford — and have been accordingly allotted prominent, if not starring roles at subsequent conventions. In 2000, Republican Bob Dole — who was on losing tickets in 1996 for president and 1976 for vice president — gave a speech.
The dilemma is a bit more complex for Democrats this year, however, because of the convention's location in the state where Dukakis presided as governor for 12 years.
"We're going to do everything we can to honor Michael Dukakis during that week. Just because he lost an election doesn't mean he wasn't right," said state Democratic Chairman Phil Johnston, who once worked in the Dukakis administration.
State leaders are planning a reception for Dukakis on July 28. And Dukakis is scheduled to moderate a forum with students on the value of public service.