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Why I Am for Walter Mondale

Win or lose, the best nominee.

United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Time comes in the life of a political party when its job is to lose the current Presidential election gracefully, keep control of the apparatus, do as little damage as possible to the Senators, Congressmen, and governors who are also running, and gird like hell for the next Presidential election four years down the line.

Each of our major parties has faced this problem over the past generation. In 1964, when the Republicans had little chance of unseating the popular and effective Lyndon Johnson, they should have run some conciliatory candidate—someone like William Scranton, who would not have made waves but who would have garnered all the votes accessible to his party. He would not have hurt his fellow Republicans, and his party would not have suffered. Instead, Barry Goldwater, an immensely likable man, was nominated. Swing voters were terrified by his bellicosity, and not only did the party lose the Presidency but it also sacrificed many good junior positions even down to the state legislative level. The party had ignored the commandment; “In a losing position, lose gracefully.”

Same thing happened to the Democrats in 1972, when there was little chance of unseating Richard Nixon. Had a sacrificial lamb like Edmund Muskie been nominated, little damage would have been done. Instead the Democrats played a wild card, George McGovern, and engineered a disaster which cost them many lesser seats across the country.

Signs indicate that the Presidential election of 1984 may fall into this category. If Ronald Reagan’s incredible luck holds; if the electorate continues to perceive him as being of gentle heart and determined will; if the malfeasances of his Administration refuse to rub off on him; and if his adventure in Grenada is still judged to have been a heroic act in defense of the Republic while the debacle in Beirut is forgiven, he could well enjoy a victory greater than the one he gained over Jimmy Carter, regardless of his Democratic opponent.

If that is predestined, the Democrats should nominate the man best calculated to hold the party together, gather strength, and plan for an all-out try in the crucial election of 1988. That one they would have to win, for should Mr. Reagan win this year and prove able to engineer the election of his successor in 1988, prospects for the Democrats during the remainder of this century would be bleak.

If the 1984 election proceeds as now seems possible, the Democrats would be wisest to nominate someone who can mount a respectable campaign, help other candidates, and stay in position to win if unexpected developments occur. Which candidate can best accomplish these three important goals?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is unquestionably the charismatic figure of this election. Legions of people have said to me, after listening to the debates: “He’s the only one talking sense, the only one openly addressing the issues.” It is a reflection on the electoral process in the American democracy that Jackson has been free to talk sense because he has not been seriously running for the Presidency. Real candidates must be more circumspect. He has been striving to establish a turf from which he could operate in the future, and he has succeeded beyond even his own hopes. His performance has been brilliant.

But it has also been fearfully divisive. Jackson is a Janus candidate. With one face he confronts the future: American politics will not be the same when he is through, and he is unquestionably paving the way for some serious black candidate who will emerge before this century is out. But with his other face he looks to a racist past, and his unfortunate statements, his thoughtless insults to the person and the intelligence of the general voter, have alienated about twice as many voters as his charisma has attracted. His verbal excesses terrify, and his threatening behavior repels.

He has not the remotest chance of binding either his party or the general electorate together, but he has accumulated great power which must be taken into account. He has been a useful gadfly, and if some way can be found to hold him and his power within the Democratic structure he will ultimately prove to be a most constructive force. How this can be done I cannot guess.

Gary Hart is the Wendell Willkie of this campaign. Charming, dedicated, clever, a clear voice of the future, he has been a fresh breeze blowing in from the West, and the excitement he has caused is proof of his appeal to a jaded electorate. If his popularity and maturity grow during the next four years, he could well be the inevitable choice of the Democrats in 1988.

Looking only at the third obligation of the party this year—actually to win, should there be some unforeseen upheaval—Hart would likely be a better bet than Mondale. Because of his age and his liberalism, he would present a more viable alternative to Reagan, and he well might inspire those undecided voters on whom the outcome would depend.

Drawing by John Yanson

But in all other aspects of the race. Hart would serve less ably than Mondale. If he were to be nominated this year, he would probably prove to be another Goldwater— or, to choose a closer analogy, another McGovern. He would engender such strong resistance among traditional Democratic groups that he would probably cause lesser Democrats to lose their seats. (During the critical days when the large industrial states were voting, I chanced to serve on a commission with Lane Kirkland and had an opportunity to observe with what force he dug in his heels to preserve labor’s position within the Democratic Party. He seemed determined to see Mondale nominated, as planned, and he brought all the pressure he could command to achieve this.) And because Hart would have upset the professionals’ favorite in gaining the nomination, he—and they—would certainly throw the Democratic organization into confusion.

I have observed in American politics, and in several campaigns in which I was a candidate, that the old pros who run a party. Republican or Democratic, will often prefer to sit on their hands and lose an election rather than to lose long-range control of their party. This may sound suicidal to the outsider, but to the insider it is highly practical. If Hart were to be the nominee this year, he would throw the party into a disarray as great as that which has followed the McGovern nomination in 1972—and the results could be as disastrous.

Also, Hart must consider his strategic position. If he were to lose heavily in 1984, he could not possibly gain the nomination again in 1988. The inability of William Jennings Bryan, Thomas E. Dewey, and Adlai Stevenson to win the second time around has made repeat nominations of losers unattractive. Promising newcomers like Tim Wirth of Colorado or Mario Cuomo of New York would elbow him out of the way. If, however, he continues to put up a good fight in the primaries this year, he could place himself in a very strong position in 1988.

For all these sound, practical reasons Walter Mondale must be the choice of the professional Democrat this year. Had the prairie fire which Hart ignited in New Hampshire been whipped by the high winds of expectation and delight across New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois in a William Jennings Bryan conflagration—and remember that Hart and Bryan came from neighboring states—the professionals would have been swept away, and Hart might possibly have gone on to victory in November. But despite his surprising revitalization in Ohio and Indiana, he has not yet proved that he can enlist the support of his party’s professionals.

The nomination of Mondale would be a sensible, inevitable move, not so dramatic as a cyclonic burst by Hart, but more stable in the long run and more protective of the party.

Mondale is not a drab candidate. With long years in government in high positions, he is obviously better qualified for the Presidency than Jimmy Carter was at this time in the campaign of 1976 or Ronald Reagan in 1980. He carried an unflawed reputation into the battle, is of the proper age for the high command, and is possessed of demonstrated common sense. He has shown himself to be a sturdy campaigner, and he has a decent respect for the office he seeks. One of his main advantages, when compared with either Carter or Reagan, is that he would not be running against Washington and the federal government, but with it.

I see the weakness of my basic argument. In 1964 the Republicans suffered a debacle; in 1968 they stormed back and won the Presidency. In 1972 the Democrats suffered a total disaster; in 1976 they won the White House. It could be argued that what the Democrats ought to do is nominate Hart as the force of the future, attract as many independents as possible, go down to a horrendous defeat, and pave the way for a recovery in 1988. Victory sometimes grows from the ashes of humiliation.

This would be unlikely in the present configuration because Hart would have far less chance than Mondale of holding blacks within a coalition. But arduous work as the likely candidate in 1988 might enable him to win their support.

I am driven to believe that Mondale should be nominated. He can hold the party together. He is a fine man who has worked hard to make himself eligible for this high office and is obviously better prepared for it than either Hart or Jackson.

Does my reasoning imply that I believe a Republican victory in November is inevitable? Certainly not! I can foresee seven possible eventualities, any one of which could produce a Democratic victory. (1.) Reagan’s advanced age might suddenly introduce an unanticipated factor. (2.) Lebanon or Central America might really fall apart and cause voters to wonder if “standing tail” is an adequate foreign policy, (3.) The collapse of foreign borrowers might imperil the stability of our large banking institutions. (4.) Even without foreign impetus, more of our internal banks might collapse, revealing the shaky structure beneath. (5.) The voters might receive a shock if interest rates climb sharply. (6.) Even Mr. Reagan’s potential supporters might awaken to the fact that if reelected Mr. Reagan would probably appoint five more Justices to the Supreme Court, leaving only one, Byron White, who had been appointed by a Democratic President; would a balance of 8-1 Republicans be good for the Republic? (7.) And women, blacks, and Hispanics might flock to the Democratic Party in great numbers and actually vote.

The Democratic nomination is eminently worth having, and the fight to gain it has been an honorable one which has served our nation well. It is entirely possible that the brawling which has given the Republicans and the cartoonists such delight has served principally to animate the party.

My reluctance to concede victory has been influenced by the Texas gubernatorial of 1983. Incumbent Bill Clements, the first Republican to occupy the chair for one hundred and five years, had everything going for him in his bid for reelection. His party felt he’d been a good governor. He was the rough-and-ready type that Texans like. He had an incredible war chest of $13 million and the support of practically everyone in the establishment. He ran a good campaign against a little-known Democrat, Mark White, and in the days prior to the vote I met not a single person who thought that Clements could fail. There was no way he could lose. But the polls had scarcely closed before it became apparent that White was winning in a stupendous upset, 1,698,000 to 1,466,000.

Clements, through a series of explicable but not appreciated accidents, had lost the women, the blacks, and the Hispanics. Ronald Reagan could do the same. And then Walter F. Mondale, having been nominated to lead his party through the storm of a foredoomed national election, would get the chance to be the fine President he can be.