It’s not hard to know what images we’ll be seeing this week of Walter Mondale, who died Monday at age 93. There’s the one-punch knockout of Gary Hart in a 1984 Democratic primary debate, when he said of Hart’s “New ideas” campaign, “Where’s the beef?”; the blue-ribbon-for-honesty line from his speech accepting the presidential nomination (“Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you; I just did”); the rueful laugh when Reagan parried questions about his age by pleading not to use for political gain “my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” He later said he knew at that moment that he had no chance to win, and indeed he didn’t: His 49-state loss would become another, more painful point of fame.
Take a step back from this inevitable headline reel, and a more substantive portrait emerges. Mondale was the amiable, agreeable embodiment of a Democratic Party whose 50-year-old foundations were withering away, and who would be the last of his kind to win his party’s nomination.
Mondale’s steady rise to political power was something out of a Garrison Keillor tale without the darkness. Born in the town of Ceylon, (“The Biggest Little Small Town in Minnesota”), graduate of the state’s university and law school (the latter thanks to the GI Bill of Rights), he didn’t so much ascend the greasy pole of politics as he was elevated by the kindness of others. Every position he attained was by appointment: attorney general at 32, senator (to replace Hubert Humphrey) at 36, picked as vice president on the 1976 presidential ticket by Georgia’s Jimmy Carter for geographical and political balance. By 1984, he was the presumptive nominee of his party long before the campaign began.
It was in this arena that the political structure built by FDR, Truman and Kennedy, that had already shown its weakness in the flight of Southerners and working-class whites, demonstrated its vulnerability even within the Democratic Party itself. While Mondale did not embrace the full-throated liberalism of Humphrey, his power was solidly rooted within the community of Black leaders, labor unions and big city Democrats; a community that seemed ready to deliver the nomination to Mondale with barely a ripple.
“The sweetest primary in history,” Mondale called it as it began, and after his landslide sweep of the Iowa caucuses, it seemed as if the contest would be over by the time the polls closed in New Hampshire. On the eve of that first primary, the New York Times reported that Mondale had the biggest lead in public opinion polls of any non-incumbent in history.
And then Hart showed up. On the “strength” of a distant second-place showing in Iowa (16 percent to Mondale’s 50 percent), he had become The Alternative. He was only eight years younger than Mondale, but he looked and talked like someone from a different generation. He was as cool (or cold) as Mondale was ebullient; and in his politics, he was at pains to define himself as something different (“we’re not all a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” he once said). In his talk of military reform and entrepreneurship, in his ads that featured high-tech graphics, Hart was in effect saying the Democratic Party was no country for old ideas.
To the shock of the entire political establishment, he beat Mondale in New Hampshire by 10 points; beat him in Vermont and Wyoming; and seemed headed for a virtual sweep on the first Super Tuesday. Indeed, Hart won that day in Florida, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. What saved Mondale were victories in Alabama and Georgia, where the Black voters of Atlanta and Birmingham turned out and salvaged his campaign. But even when Mondale’s coalition of traditional Democrats put him into the lead, his victory was tight. Were it not for a snarky remark from Hart about visiting a “toxic waste dump” in New Jersey—his capacity for self-destruction would return with a vengeance in the next cycle—Mondale might well have faced a genuinely contested convention.
There’s a common judgment about what doomed Mondale’s chances: his pledge to raise taxes; his choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, a historically significant but politically vulnerable choice; and that clever Reagan quip. But the judgment goes only so far. For one thing, Mondale didn’t actually lose that first debate with Reagan; he dominated it. Even before the incumbent president got lost in a rhetorical fog, Mondale was hammering him for breaking promises about health care and other issues. And the most striking aspect of that election, in retrospect, wasn’t all campaign missteps: It’s that Mondale suffered one of the most crushing losses in political history despite having a unified party.
Usually when a candidate suffers a 20-point popular vote loss and manages to win only one state (his own, barely), it’s because the party is split in two, as happened to Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Mondale suffered no such open defection from within his party; rather, it was the voters who, enjoying fair economic winds, saw no reason to choose a candidate without a compelling message just because their own party was telling them to.
That historic defeat may be one reason why Mondale was the last Democratic nominee to run a campaign with a New Deal flavor. Four years later, Michael Dukakis declared that “this election is not about ideology, it is about competence.” In the next cycle, Bill Clinton declared himself “a different kind of Democrat” and jettisoned some of his party’s positions about crime and welfare. Al Gore began his political life as a centrist, much in the model of Clinton.
In many ways, Mondale was a man fully prepared for the presidency, not just by experience but by character and personality. He had, at least offstage, a frankness and a sense of self-awareness not all that common among politicians. (When he offered a dyspeptic judgment about a fellow Democrat, he said “the difference between him and my folks is that when we act like assholes, we know it.”) It was his political fate to be launched into his biggest political battle of his life with weapons that no longer worked.