on politics from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"The Passionless Presidency"
The trouble with Jimmy Carter's Administration. By James Fallows
(April 7, 2000)
"Before the fact is the dream," a small-town South Dakota druggist used to remind his two sons and two daughters. One of the sons went on to become mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota, and Vice President of the United States. Hubert H. Humphrey's memoir of his father tells much about both men, and about a vanishing kind of America. A reminiscence by Hubert H. Humphrey
The Atlantic Monthly | January 1983
o Judge strictly from precedent, Walter F. Mondale has a better chance than any other Democrat to win the presidential nomination and, perhaps, to replace Ronald Reagan. After all, four of the past eight Presidents have been former Vice Presidents, as Mondale is. And Mondale, out of office, has been campaigning full-time since late 1981; the past three elected Presidents, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, were all non-officeholders who did nothing but campaign for years. While Mondale campaigns, his current opponents for the Democratic nomination are senators bound (at least in theory) to their Capitol Hill desks.
The Perpetual Campaign
An inquiry into these questions: Will years of running for President pay off for Walter Mondale, as it did for three previous candidates? Does Mondale, or any other Democratic candidate, have any new ideas? And what is the party going to do about entitlement programs, and about the unions, whose support it needs but whose expectations may have become an obstacle to economic recovery?
by Gregg Easterbrook
Mondale's first run at the presidency came in 1974, and it didn't last long. Like a car trying to start on a cold Minnesota morning, his campaign heaved and jerked and rattled, then expired, motionless. Mondale made his now-famous sheepish apology: "I don't think anyone should be President who is not willing to go through fire," he said. Basically, I found that I did not have the overwhelming desire to be President which is essential for the kind of campaign that is required. Political professionals were vastly amused by the affair, and wrote Mondale off.
But Mondale was not finished; nor was he turning against politics. His 1974 campaign failed not because he experienced some metaphysical crisis but because his political timing and strategy weren't right. In 1974, Mondale now concedes, he had no particular program in mind, no clear objective for the country, and no specific notion of how to administer the presidency—just a general conviction that he could represent liberalism. He had received enough publicity as a senator to become well known, and, like many politicians in that position, he couldn't resist the temptation to raise the stakes. Mondale quickly found out that his personal ambition and good name weren't enough to make him President. He said recently, "I wasn't experienced; I wasn't satisfied I had the answers. I wasn't in a position to really help the country." The next important moment in Mondale's career, friends close to him say, came in the summer of 1976, when Carter was auditioning candidates for Vice President. One of Mondale's aides, Richard Moe, had predicted far in advance that Carter would need a northern liberal to balance his ticket, and had been preparing his boss to maneuver for the chance. Mondale ultimately threw himself at Carter, and his dignity was tested when Carter put off his decision to the last possible instant. In a suite in New York's Carlyle Hotel on the morning when Carter was supposed to announce his choice, Mondale, who had no idea what Carter would do, kept picking up the phone to make sure it was working. Afterward, friends say, he resolved never to be in this subservient position again—and the only way to ensure that he wouldn't be was to have the nomination himself.
Mondale's term in the White House proved to be the final stage in his transformation into a serious candidate. While his ultimate authority was slight, his involvement in presidential affairs was greater than that of most Vice Presidents, so he was able to observe the mechanics of the Oval Office firsthand, and to see how rudimentary and trivial are the mistakes that can drag a President down. A former aide recalls sitting with him on Air Force Two (a piece of equipment that, even now, Mondale and his staff speak of often, and with longing) in the days when the Carter Administration was going sour. "We're blowing it, we're blowing it," Mondale is reported to have said in despair. And the reasons, he was saying, were so maddeningly basic: that Carter refused to deal with Congress, that he refused to coax and cajole, that he insisted on floating airily above it all. Mondale says that his experience with Carter taught him something simple but vital—that he could handle the job. "I realized that I would be able to be President, and I was never really sure of that before."
Somewhere along the way, Mondale overcame his distaste for campaigning. During the 1978 mid-term elections, he traveled the country extensively on behalf of Democratic candidates, training for his own eventual campaign (and comforted by the luxuries of his vice-presidential 707). Now, with the Democratic Convention still more than a year off, he is sustaining a pace of almost constant travel. During 1982, he campaigned in person for more than 135 Democratic candidates in forty states. I followed him through a recent campaign trip; in one period of less than seventy-two hours, we stopped in Erie, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg; Green Bay and Milwaukee; St. Louis; Kansas City; and Los Angeles. During the trip, Mondale changed personnel the way a rider changes horses. One aide would accompany him for a day or two and return to Washington, exhausted; a new aide would appear to take his place. But Mondale himself never faltered, looking as fresh and eager at Los Angeles International Airport as he had at Austin Straubel Field, in Green Bay. At the Penn Harris Motor Inn in Harrisburg, a typical appearance, he sat through three hours of a Democratic Party dinner, one minor candidate after another standing up to make a predictable speech. ("And now a few words from our next state supreme court justice, Steve Zappala. Steve is a man who....") Mondale listened attentively the evening through, an exercise of discipline all the more impressive given the fact that he must sit in the place of honor adjacent to the podium, where any nodding off is clearly observable. While for legal reasons involving the protocols of campaign contributions he is not yet officially a candidate, this time, Mondale says privately, there is no turning back.
learly Walter Mondale has led a charmed life. He has never had to win entirely on his own the offices he has held. In 1960, he was appointed, at the age of thirty-two, to be Minnesota's attorney general, when the sitting attorney general resigned following a trivial disagreement with local Democratic leaders. Assuming that office, Mondale found in the files documents that would make his name a household word across the state. The previous attorney general had been investigating the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation, a charity suspected of misappropriating funds, and was close to pay dirt. Soon Mondale was telling the press how an officer of the foundation had funneled money meant for handicapped children into his own pocket. It was a banner-headline scandal, and Mondale was the hero. When the time came for Mondale to run on his own, he ran as a popular incumbent, and won easily.
Then, in 1964, after his mentor Hubert Humphrey ran for Vice President with Lyndon Johnson, Mondale was appointed to fill out Humphrey's term as senator. He had two years to get ready to run as an incumbent, in 1966. He ran and won again in 1972. In 1976, Carter (under pressure from Humphrey, who was in failing health but at the peak of his persuasive power) selected Mondale as his Vice President. Again he advanced by means of someone else's strength.
Because of this history, Mondale is sometimes presumed to have been born of a well-connected family that smoothed his path. He was not. His father, a farmer who became a rural Methodist minister, was a first-generation immigrant; he was kind and hardworking, but through his life he acquired few possessions and little influence. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who found fame and fortune during the Depression (a fact that colors his present world view), Mondale's family barely made it through the early 1930s, and stayed poor afterward.
In his book, Mondale, Finlay Lewis, a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, describes how Mondale managed to enroll in Macalester College, in St. Paul, in 1946. That same year Hubert Humphrey, who had taught a political-science course at Macalester, was making his reputation as a radical young mayor. Mondale met Humphrey and was fascinated by him; he was also fascinated by how Humphrey had achieved the mayor's office, by using a combination of wild, rocking political rallies and tedious door-to-door canvassing. In 1948, Humphrey ran for the Senate. Mondale, Lewis writes, was soon doing only enough schoolwork to get by, spending his spare time working for Humphrey under his campaign manager, Orville Freeman. Just weeks after Humphrey won a runaway victory, Mondale's father died, and soon, predictably, Mondale's filial affections were transferred to Humphrey and Freeman. Mondale took a year off in 1949 and went to work in Washington; he was twenty-one years old, an unsophisticated country boy with a U.S. senator for a friend. He kept working for Humphrey and Freeman, through college, without pay. From 1951 to 1953, he served in the Army; stationed at Fort Knox, he was never involved in the Korean fighting. After discharge, he entered the University of Minnesota law school, but he continued to work for Freeman, who ran for and won Minnesota's governorship in 1954. Later, when Mondale opened a small law office, his political work continued—mostly tiring, thankless swings through small towns. When Freeman ran for re-election in 1958, he made Mondale his campaign manager, and Mondale did well. Thus, when Freeman appointed Mondale to be the state attorney general, in 1960, it was a reward for service, not a recognition of his legal accomplishments. Yet the choice was fair. Mondale, after all, had proven himself through years of unglamorous effort to be diligent and reliable: his appointment was the bright side of political patronage in operation. After the Sister Kenny boost, Mondale compiled a strong record both as attorney general and as a politician. Polls showed him to be the Minnesota voters' favorite for appointed successor to Humphrey. When Carter chose Mondale to be Vice President, it was mainly because he wanted the good reputation and connections Mondale had earned in Washington. It is understandable, then, that Mondale is bothered by the perception that he has led a soft life. "When you really work hard and do your job, sometimes it looks easy," he will say peevishly. Mondale's career ascent, though helped by good fortune, would not have been possible without his effort.
Following Humphrey's example, Mondale sought the connections in Washington of a traditional Democratic coalition-builder. He made friends among the representatives of organized labor (Mondale's background in Minnesota's labor-oriented Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, a semi-independent sect, and the fact that he had led a modest corn-pickers' strike one summer when he was in college, helped there). At the same time, he was careful not to offend needlessly the conservative southern wing of the party. Sometimes this meant compromising on liberal causes such as busing and fair housing before the Senate, to the dismay of Democratic leftists. Usually it just meant behaving like a member of the Senate "club"—being deferential to the older southerners and keeping politics out of personal relations. This way, Mondale was able to cultivate the friendship and occasional assistance of conservative Democrats such as Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi. It was the same strategy that Humphrey had followed, with varying degrees of success—always trying to be as conciliatory in private as he was bombastic in public.
ondale's strategy is the same today; in order to win the nomination, he is reactivating the old coalition of labor and southerners, a coalition that has not functioned since Humphrey used it in 1968. (Jimmy Carter largely shunned the Democratic Party machinery, taking his message—"trust me" directly to the voters. McGovern tried to win over the Democratic coalition as his campaign fell apart, but was never supported by either group.) Mondale is the one leading Democratic contender who has always been, by experience and temperament, a traditional grass-roots politician.
The other leading contenders before Senator Edward Kennedy announced that he would not run were Kennedy himself and John Glenn (Ohio). Senators Gary Hart (Colorado), Alan Cranston (California), and Ernest Holdings (South Carolina), the former governor of Florida, Reubin Askew, and Representative Morris Udall (Arizona) are also running. Hart is not likely to win, in part because his cool, technocratic image does not seem to be inspiring to voters; he is expected to do well, however, and to emerge from the campaign as a national leader. Cranston, who is sixty-eight years old, has been pushed by the same vague ambitions that moved Mondale in 1974; he tells friends that he might as well run, because he's as good as anyone else in the race, but that is hardly a pitch to inspire confidence. Few expect Cranston to last out the early primaries, if only because, though he is healthy, he has in recent years visibly aged. Hollings and Askew probably are actually running for Vice President; each has only a small chance of winning the presidential nomination, but either could, as a result of an impressive showing, make himself a ticket-balancer for a northerner such as Kennedy, should Kennedy decide to re-enter the race. Udall finds it hard to resist making one last try, but he has Parkinson's disease, and might suffer from the rigors of a campaign.
Among the three leaders, there are sharp differences in personal history and style. Kennedy did not start out by working his way up through the political ranks, as Mondale did, but was pulled up by his brothers' successes. In the fall election campaign, he promoted himself as the Democrats' Reagan—the representative of old party values. Also, like Reagan, he has star quality, the ability to excite people by his presence—something Mondale will never be accused of. Despite his decision not to run, he presumably will have a significant impact on nomination politics and on the shaping of the party's 1984 platform.
Glenn is not a lifelong politician, having been elected directly to the Senate on the strength of his fame as a Korean War hero and an astronaut. The political appeal of Glenn's space flight seems to grow rather than diminish with time. Glenn didn't win election to the Senate until 1974; after losing attempts in 1964 and 1970; then, voters seemed distinctly unimpressed by his feats as an astronaut. Today, however, Glenn draws increasingly enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes—crowds that come to see a hero, not a senator. If bad economic times persist, voters may long for a symbol of success and patriotism. That, coupled with Glenn's solid if unspectacular Senate record, could propel him past the other candidates.
But while their styles and images differ, in one respect Mondale, Kennedy, and Glenn are remarkably similar. All have settled on nearly the same portfolio of "new ideas" about the economy and defense. Either all have come up with the right answers or all have failed in the effort.
one of the Democrats offers a panacea on the order of supply-side economics, and that is probably a good sign, given the recent disappointing history of political cure-alls. It is fashionable among the Democrats and their academic advisers to say that the age of "macro solutions" (Republican insistence on supply-side remedies, or Democratic calls for full employment) has passed, replaced by a need for many "micro" solutions—the fine-tuning of society on a case-by-case basis.
To some degree, all the leading Democrats propose the following "micro" actions: eased monetary policy to bring interest rates down; more federal spending on education and job training, now called "human-capital investment"; a new industry-government-labor partnership to meet international competition; heavy government spending to rebuild the country's "infrastructure" of roads and bridges; modification or cancellation of Reagan's third tax cut, which is scheduled to take effect next July; restoration of some of the programs hurt by Reagan's budget cuts, such as child nutrition and health-screening; mild decreases in defense spending; large government subsidies for industrial research and development; and an "industrial policy." The proposals for an "industrial policy" are extremely vague, but their tao is Japanese; they are inspired by the model of the Japanese government's support of business.
Noticeably absent from this list are items from the traditional Democratic social agenda, such as minority advancement, expanded civil rights, and full employment; Kennedy, long a champion of national health insurance, alone continues to advocate that idea. Whether or not the Democrats have reached the conclusion that many activist social goals aren't sensible or practical isn't clear, but all the contenders have decided that now is not the time to press for them.
Because the new ideas adopted by the major Democratic figures are so similar, it appears that the nomination will be determined primarily by personalities, style, organization, and, of course, luck, with ideology and issues playing only minor roles. (Once the nomination is decided, on the other hand, the Democrats' general-election campaign will likely be extremely ideological. In reaction to the programs of Reagan or some other economic conservative, the Democrats can be expected to draft a platform that calls for the government's increased involvement in the economy.) There are some differences. Kennedy tends to dwell on sustaining at some level what are fashionably called "smokestack" industries, and he may propose a national development bank with power to invest Treasury money in corporate stock. Mondale emphasizes international competition—expanding exports and resorting to trade restrictions, if necessary. Glenn talks most of improving schools and providing training for highly skilled jobs, which happen to be the easiest political goals to advocate, since no one is opposed to education. Hart's plan is to leave the smokestack industries to their fate and to channel resources into making the U.S. dominant in high-technology fields.
Mondale's "micro" prescriptions include lowering interest rates, both to fuel the economy and to cut the budget deficit by lowering the government's borrowing costs; letting the dollar's value weaken, to promote U.S. exports; encouraging small-business innovators and entrepreneurs and discouraging further corporate mergers; establishing a federal "capital budget," which would list "infrastructure" and other public-works items separately from social and defense spending; generously funding these public-works projects, both to accomplish the reconstruction and to generate jobs; encouraging industry-labor-government "partnership," perhaps by means of an advisory tripartite commission; increasing the budget of the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes U.S. exports; perhaps providing more "trade adjustment assistance," the special unemployment-benefits program for workers laid off as a result of losses to foreign competitors, primarily in the steel and automotive industries; strictly enforcing various trade protections, such as the regulations that restrict imports of foreign steel; and opposing, though not formally restricting, the loans that banks and pension funds may offer outside the U.S.
ow would these goals be accomplished? Mondale says that interest rates could be lowered by reducing government deficits, but, perhaps because he senses that this method sounds like supply-side theory, his staff is now considering adopting Kennedy's proposal that Congress pass a bill compelling the Federal Reserve to keep its interest rates at between one and 4 percent above inflation. (Three to 4 percent is called the "historic" interest rate by economists, because that's what banks charged over and above inflation from the end of World War II until recently.) A weaker dollar would improve the market for U.S. exports, by making them easier for foreigners to buy, and would also make imports more expensive and thus less attractive to U.S. consumers. The dollar's strength is an ironic product of Reagan's successful war on inflation, and it has deepened the recession by hurting export-oriented industries. (The Rossignol ski company, for instance, recently closed a plant in Vermont and opened one in France because the favorable dollar-franc exchange makes it more profitable to manufacture in Europe.) A weaker dollar may make economic sense, but advocating it will baffle the public, because through the 1970s, when the dollar was weak, voters were told how bad that was. Mondale's dream is to emulate the Japanese, who at the moment are having it both ways—a weak yen and high economic growth. He neglects to add that the Japanese accomplish this by discouraging consumer demand at home, something that would not go over well with the consumption-oriented American voter.
Mondale's plans for small businesses come primarily from Robert B. Reich, a Harvard professor of public policy and former Federal Trade Commission official who has emerged as the chief source of the Democrats' economic solutions. Reich, perhaps more than any other influential economist, appreciates the stultifying nature of large corporate bureaucracies (he seems to be one of the few who have come to understand that large bureaucracies are just as bad for business as for government), and he believes that the merger-mad, paper-swapping modern business manager is one of the culprits behind the nation's economic decline. Unfortunately, inspiring a return to small, specialized businesses is hard to accomplish. Lower interest rates would help, since high rates do more damage to small, new ventures than to large firms serving established markets. Mondale also suggests a new program of tax breaks and loans for small businesses, although the dramatic tax breaks made available to businesses of every size under Reagan's accelerated-depreciation bill so far have not had the desired effect. Perhaps the more expeditious scheme that Mondale has proposed to inhibit the expansion of large corporations is simply for the government to put a stop to corporate mergers, although he has not made clear how he would do this. Mondale says of the merger wave, "It's obscene—billions of dollars being wasted just so A can say it owns B, millions more being wasted on take-over defenses, and now millions going into cozy management contracts to make take-over targets unattractive. It all just accelerates the shift from long-term improvements to short-term profits and quick fixes."
The idea of separating the "capital budget" from the national budget as a whole is solely a bookkeeping scheme. Like Reagan's "balanced budget" amendment, it couldn't hurt, but at the same time, it won't make a real difference.
Mondale's Export-Import Bank proposal seems out of step with the times, because it is an unabashed call for a large subsidy. The Export-Import Bank provides below-market financing for American goods sold overseas; however, all other Western nations have similar institutions, which provide even lower-interest loans to exporters. Thus, U.S. sellers are increasingly losing out to foreign competitors. (Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas, for instance, have lost numerous commercial-airliner sales to the European Airbus because of the Airbus's heavily subsidized financing.) We've got to say to the Europeans, if you're going to lowball us, we're going to lowball you," Mondale says. The system of subsidized exports runs against economic logic: one country spends so that another country can buy merchandise at artificially low prices. For each contract, pressure on governments to subsidize the seller is considerable. Mondale contends that touching off a serious subsidized-loan war would eventually force the Europeans to see the foolishness of all subsidized exports, and to sue for peace by negotiating an agreement to dissolve export-import-type institutions.
Perhaps this scheme would work. But perhaps a fatter Export-Import Bank would become simply another entrenched subsidy defended by special-interest constituents who would have a powerful (if short-sighted) reason to oppose its dissolution. And that is the flaw of many of the Democrats' new ideas—that they are really just new names for old subsidies. For instance, according to Kennedy's staff, the development bank he contemplates to invest federal funds in corporate stock would channel assistance to promising new industries and to failing old ones. That pretty much covers the spectrum. The development bank could easily become a bailout clearinghouse, enabling corporations to get taxpayer assistance without having to go through Congress. The government-sponsored "human-capital" training emphasized by Glenn, among others, sounds suspiciously like a high-technology version of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the most recent, and farcically ineffective, federal attempt at job training. CETA proved unable to train people in simple, transferrable skills such as construction work; how would a new version prepare them to be computer engineers? The lesson of CETA might have been that the only effective source of job training is the companies who are hiring new workers. Mondale's special trade protections (he also favors rules requiring that a certain percentage of the parts of imported cars be built in the U.S., as do Kennedy, Glenn, and Cranston) could give smokestack industries the breathing space they heed to retool, or they could encourage the industries to put off renovation and provide labor unions with grounds to demand a new round of costly wage increases.
he best example of the democrats' economic reasoning is the infrastructure rebuilding called for by all the candidates. Public works are crumbling not so much because government spending has stopped but because construction costs have risen so high that the nation cannot afford the repairs. Construction of a new tube for the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, for instance, is costing $5l2 million per mile. The Century Freeway in Los Angeles will cost at least $93 million, and possibly as much as $162 million, per mile. The final two-mile stretch of Washington's inner-city I-395, all but completed several years ago, is used by city workers as a parking lot. The reason why the road hasn't been opened is that the work that remains to be done—a few ramps and the white lines, signs, and streetlights—is estimated to cost $10.5 million, and the money isn't available.
Public-works construction is prohibitively expensive for a variety of reasons, including bid-rigging by construction companies, overcharging by materials suppliers, and lawsuits filed by environmentalists. But the fundamental reason is the wage demands of labor unions. Most federal construction is covered by the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that workers be paid the "prevailing wage"—that is, usually, the union wage—for government projects. When a union wage is paid, Davis-Bacon also dictates that union work rules—for instance, that there be many more high-paid journeymen than low-paid apprentices on a job—apply to federal projects. The results are to make infrastructure repair all but impossible to afford; to hand a large amount of money to those few construction workers who do get jobs, but to do little to relieve unemployment; and to subsidize construction jobs that pay workers $20 an hour with the taxes of others who may make $8 or $10 an hour.
The Democrats do not address this side of the problem, however; they only call for more money to be pumped into public works. If enacted as now proposed, the Democrats' infrastructure plans would perpetuate the existing system of excessive wages and limited job creation.
In this way, the "micro" approach, which considers only small, specific adjustments, enables the Democrats to avoid facing several big problems that underlie U.S. industrial stagnation. For instance, while eased monetary policy and lower interest rates might have the desired "micro" effect of stepping up economic activity, it is deceptive to suggest, as Mondale and all the Democrats do to some degree, that this would be an economic cure. Interest rates were reasonable during the early 1970s, and in that same period, the pattern of today's decline was being set. That pattern has largely to do with the internal structures of U.S. business, and the expectations and concerns of U.S. business executives and workers. Business managers expect dramatic short-term profits, government support, or market protection if they fail to invest for the future, and high salaries at all times, including raises even if their companies are losing money. (International Harvester, for example, recently gave its departing chairman, Archie R. McCardell, a $600,000 bonus; the company, following his tenure, was thinking of filing for bankruptcy. Fortune magazine concluded, after an extensive survey of top-management salaries, that "to an extraordinary extent, executives who flop still get paid handsomely.") Labor unions, meanwhile, also expect uninterrupted wage-and-benefit increases, regardless of how the employers are faring, and even when increases will accelerate a business's decline. (Witness Chrysler, this past fall, with 60 percent of its work force laid off, and the rest talking about a strike over higher wages.)
The Democrats' new "micro" ideas do not address this "macro" problem, and many—for example, the expanded "trade adjustment assistance" program—could worsen it. Even now, "adjustment assistance" in effect pays those workers who qualify for it as much as double the amount of normal unemployment benefits. Thus, after forcing their companies to lay them off by insisting on wages that cannot be paid given the vigor of foreign competition, workers in some industries are kept insulated from reality by special benefits not available to other workers but financed by other workers' taxes. A recent, much-publicized report of the House Democratic Caucus not only seconds the adjustment-assistance idea but suggests expanding it.
The closest the Democrats come to facing the need for wage-and-salary restraint is the "tax-based incomes policy" advocated by Hart. Hart's complicated system would concentrate tax breaks on companies that succeed in holding down wages and prices and penalize those that fail to do so.
Strangely, the limited promise of these more detailed proposals leaves the vaguest among them, industry-labor-government "partnership" and "industrial policy," as ultimately the most important. Clearly, there is no present force in American life sufficient to moderate workers' and managers' expectations of ever more money regardless of the economy; one reason is that, even in the depths of recession, labor and management still eye each other with unlimited suspicion, presuming the worst at every turn. Some new influence must be brought to bear to change that, and perhaps "partnership"—some kind of government counseling function—would do. This, if workable, could be the Democrats' most important "new idea," but it must be refined and given substance before 1984 if it is to have any meaning.
hile Mondale is pursuing a favorable public opinion by means of "new ideas," he is pursuing votes with an old strategy—one perfected by Richard Nixon.
When Nixon lost the California governor's race in 1962, he was out of politics, scorned by the public, and out of a job, with no firsthand knowledge of the business world. Nixon's response was to move to New York City and join the corporate law firm that is now Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. There, he gained acceptance by big-business leaders and developed a network of potential major campaign contributors. He began, for the first time in his life, to make a large salary. And he arranged with the firm to spend relatively little time in the office. With some seed money and his salary from the law firm to fall back on, Nixon began to travel, campaigning for every local Republican candidate, however minor, who would consent to appear on the same platform with him.
By the mid-1960s, Nixon was still regarded as a joke by the national press and the national party structure, but he found himself with more and more friends at the party's local level, friends who would eventually be delegates to the 1968 Republican Convention. Meanwhile, he initiated the "New Nixon" campaign, which was designed to convince voters that he was now a different and substantially better candidate. His chief competition was Nelson Rockefeller, but although some Republicans passionately wanted Rockefeller, others passionately did not. Nixon positioned himself such that when the anti-Rockefeller faction turned to look for a savior, it saw him. The reaction against Rockefeller, combined with the calling in of many small, personal debts accumulated through years of local campaigning, finally won Nixon the nomination.
The parallels to Mondale are striking. When Mondale left the vice presidency in 1980, he, like Nixon, suffered a loss of public esteem, in Mondale's case because of his association with Carter. He had never held a job in the corporate world, and he lacked the credentials that would make business leaders feel comfortable with him. So he took a job in the Washington office of Winston & Strawn, a Chicago-based corporate law firm, and joined the boards of Control Data and Columbia Pictures. Between the salary from the law firm and those from the board directorships, Mondale's income soared to an estimated $500,000. And the deal with Winston & Strawn is like Nixon's with his firm: Mondale simply lends his prestige to the firm and makes a few phone calls; he does little legal work. He is free to travel the country practically full-time.
Shortly after signing on with Winston & Strawn, Mondale began his first round of travels—what he called a "re-education" campaign in a New York Times Magazine piece he wrote about himself. Through most of 1981. Mondale moved around the country and overseas, meeting businessmen, professors, military officers, and political leaders and seeking "new ideas." His aides worried that if Mondale failed to find new ideas—if his "re-education" had no clear result—the episode would come to be seen as an especially windy publicity stunt. Instead, however it was intended, it has turned out to be a political masterstroke. In 1981, when Reagan was at the height of his power in Congress, many Democrats made panicky conversions to supply-side and other conservative programs, conversions they soon began to regret. But by announcing a "re-education" period, Mondale was able to appear to be open-minded, weighing the Administration's arguments, so that he could endorse supply-side theory in the remote event that it did work without committing himself to it in the meantime. His conclusions wouldn't come until his "re-education" was complete—that is, until the public's verdict was in on Reagan's policies. And whichever way it turned out, there would be a "New Mondale," disassociated from the discredited liberal programs and, perhaps, from Carter.
By early 1982, Mondale quietly dropped his "re-education" theme and began to campaign in earnest for local Democratic candidates and, of course, indirectly for himself. Other Democratic contenders, such as Kennedy and Cranston, were already doing the same, but, being senators, they could not invest as much time as Mondale could. Candidates to campaign for were chosen, Mondale's aides say, on the basis of who and what areas would be essential to the 1984 nomination (by last September, Mondale had already made fifteen appearances in Iowa) and, simply, on the basis of who would accept his assistance. Because the Democratic contenders had to compete for local platforms to share and for local candidates to embrace as "my old friend" Mondale, Kennedy, and the rest often found themselves bidding against each other. "Mondale's people called me up and said, 'Buzz, we'd really like to come out and help you,'" says Anthony Andrezeski, a congressional candidate from Erie, Pennsylvania.
Many of the appearances were fundraisers, either for the local candidates or for Mondale's political-action committee (PAC), which Mondale named the Committee for the Future of America. By the fall of 1982, the PAC had raised $2.2 million to finance Mondale's activities. One benefit of this money, and of Mondale's lucrative contract with Winston & Strawn, is that it enables Mondale to travel first class. The small jets he charters are not as fancy as Air Force Two, but they have their compensations; while first-class accommodations may be a luxury for the occasional traveler, they are almost a necessity, given the exhaustions of constant travel, for a full-time political campaigner. Mondale also likes to be treated well; although he is not materialistic, he seems to be cheered by little touches of luxury and to gain confidence when some fuss is made over him. Another effect of the PAC money is that it enables Mondale himself to make contributions to local candidates, a recent innovation in the pursuit of the presidency. At nearly every stop, Mondale presses some amount of money into the hands of local candidates. At a Milwaukee dinner last fall, for instance, he gave a check for $3,000 to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Earl. Mondale's PAC as of last November had spent $700,000 of its $2.2 million on direct contributions to other candidates and on campaign services. Because his PAC machinery is affluent and well organized at this early stage (Glenn, by contrast, has almost no organization), Mondale is putting many people in his debt. His standard speech, however, includes an attack on the "unprecedented amount of special-interest money slopping around this country," and when I asked him about his own PAC, Mondale became testy. "I'm just doing what the other guy is doing," he said. "As long as the system exists, you have to use it." Other PAC money is going to direct-mail campaigns to raise more funds. Mondale's mailings are handled by a company called Targeted Communications, run by a young direct-mail consultant named Robert Smith, who calls voters "the persuadables," and who said to James Conaway, a writer for the Washington Post Magazine, "We conceptualize the appeal."
t is ironic that in an age of mass media and conceptualized appeals, presidential candidates must spend more time standing before the public than ever. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt did not start running full-time four years before an election; neither did John Kennedy nor, the first time around, did Nixon. During the 1960s, Americans were repeatedly and ominously warned that politics would become like selling toothpaste, with candidates working exclusively through television and never seeing voters at all. In fact, exactly the reverse has happened. The traditional style of campaigning has become a career in itself.
The increased demand for candidates to travel is partly caused by the dramatic escalation of spending in politics. Candidates, like generals, feel compelled to use everything they've got; as money became available for full-time campaign staffs and chartered jets, candidates began to use them at the earliest available opportunity, forcing other candidates to respond in kind. (The Washington Post reports that Glenn will need an estimated $16 million just to finance his nomination campaign.) And partly it is caused by the breakdown of old party power structures. Twenty years ago, a relatively small number of Democratic leaders—perhaps a few hundred congressmen and local bosses—controlled most of the convention delegates; candidates could focus their campaigning on them. Today, when only a few in the party have a lot of power, many have a little. Mondale strategists estimate that there are 25,000 to 60,000 active Democrats with some input in the "leadership process," people who either might become delegates themselves or will have some power to sway those who do. A personal appeal to these people is important, and shaking 60,000 hands could take four years. Further, because local leaders are now more independent (or unreliable, depending on one's perspective), a single visit or favor may not be enough to win a commitment; each potential supporter must be repeatedly wooed. "The IOU process is just not what it used to be," says James Johnson, who was Mondale's White House executive assistant and is now his chief aide.
Perpetual campaigning has another purpose: to locate and inspire potential foot soldiers who will ring doorbells and hand out literature when the race speeds up. In the past, manpower was not such a problem. When big-city political machines were dominant, there was a ready and reliable pool of campaign workers: the ruling party's city and county jobholders. Anyone who was beholden to the local bosses for his paycheck had no choice but to ring doorbells, whenever and for whomever the bosses instructed. Now, presidential candidates must persuade people to walk the neighborhoods. That, too, is part of the four-year full-time task.
For Mondale personally, the long campaign has advantages. He is using the early, low-pressure appearances to improve his speaking style, to enlarge his fund of jokes and applause lines, and, generally, to learn to relax. In the White House, he was known for excessively stiff speeches and slightly imperious behavior; now, his speeches are energetic and funny, sometimes even commanding. The difference is so marked that when Mondale appeared at the Democrats' Philadelphia mini-convention, last June, and gave the best-delivered and most effective (if virtually content-free) speech of any candidate, including Kennedy, the party faithful were shocked. "Could that possibly have been Mondale?" seemed to be the common reaction.
Friends say that Mondale's true personality is merely beginning to show through; there has also been a powerful infusion of media-image advice. The cadence of his speech-making seems to be in conscious imitation of Kennedy's speaking style. On the campaign trail, he jokes freely, and is much less self-conscious than previously. At the party dinner in Milwaukee, Mondale, listening to a speech by Anthony Earl, pounded the table and threw his head back in laughter—the kind of just-us-folks reaction voters find so appealing in Ronald Reagan.
n the past, Mondale was often unpleasantly stern with his employees, and, as a result, his staff suffered from low morale and a high turnover. For some time, he would go out of his way to enter his Senate office by a side door to avoid having to say hello to aides. This aloofness has lately disappeared, and his staff has stabilized. Johnson has been with him for ten years; Moe, for longer, having been Mondale's administrative assistant in the Senate. David Aaron, one of his foreign-policy advisers, was a Senate aide and then Zbigniew Brzezinski's deputy on the National Security Council; Michael Berman, his vice-presidential counsel, continues to handle his legal affairs. The only recent arrival to his inner staff is Lawrence Hansen, who was administrative assistant to Senator Adlai Stevenson until Stevenson left to run for governor of Illinois; Hansen is doing most of the campaign follow-up work for Mondale, serving as his Edwin Meese.
The years out of political office have been as kind to most of these men, presidential-aides-in-waiting, as they have been to Mondale. Moe and Berman, both attorneys, moved easily to law firms, as did Burt Carp, Mondale's domestic-policy specialist in the Senate, who worked under Stuart Eizenstat in the White House. For the non-lawyers, finding work has not been so simple. Johnson, for example, opened a consulting firm, called Public Strategies, along with Richard Holbrooke, an assistant secretary of state under Carter, formerly an editor of the magazine Foreign Policy, and a consummate Washington insider. Public Strategies has sold Strategic advice on public-policy issues to a variety of corporate clients, Johnson says, among them Cummins Engine, Dreyfus, Beatrice Foods, and Columbia Pictures. Johnson admits that he doesn't spend all of his time with the firm. Apparently, the main service his clients seek is access to Johnson, for if Mondale wins, Johnson will be the next presidential chief of staff. The Public Strategies office is on the premises of Winston & Strawn and adjoins Mondale's. This physical proximity, if nothing else, gives Johnson primacy among Mondale's aides.
Another non-lawyer and Mondale loyalist, Paul Jensen, also found himself without a job when Carter lost. Jensen responded by putting together a small think-tank, the National Policy Exchange, with Mondale on its board. In the manner of the new high-technology information industry, the National Policy Exchange does not generate ideas; it "exchanges" them among their sources.
All of the members of Mondale's inner circle are, to some extent, helping to plan for 1984. Although the conventional wisdom holds that Mondale's connection with the disgraced Carter will be his biggest problem, Mondale's staff has already all but dismissed the question. A wave of nostalgia for Carter is not likely, but Mondale's aides assume that in another year the memory of Carter's record will no longer be fresh. (When Kennedy praised Carter in his Philadelphia mini-convention speech, he received, surprisingly, sustained applause.) And there is a practical consideration: polls show that voters know Mondale's name but don't connect it with Carter's. "The low public regard for Vice Presidents turns out to be a real plus here," says one of Mondale's aides. If Mondale makes it to the convention in a strong position, Carter could be important. The trends of shifting population will favor the South at the 1984 convention. There is no guarantee that Carter could deliver the South to Mondale, but he might be a major influence.
Another faction Mondale has his sights on is the homosexual vote. The 1984 election, according to many political strategists, will mark the emergence of homosexuals as an important force in national politics. Homosexuals tend to be middle- or upper-class; they have money to contribute, they follow politics, and a large percentage of them vote. "There must be 3 or 4 million of them out there," says Mondale, referring to homosexuals whom he believes can be relied on to vote as a bloc for whichever candidate wins their favor. Mondale is the early leader in that regard, having recently been the keynote speaker at a dinner sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a lobby for homosexual causes. Mondale has also met with Dan Bradley, who used to be the head of the Legal Services Corporation and who, since announcing his homosexuality in a New York Times article, has become the nation's most celebrated gay person. Obviously, this is a risky strategy; it could backfire on Mondale in the South and in blue-collar areas. Mondale has told political allies, "The trick is to say you're against discrimination without endorsing their lifestyle." For the record, he claims that his Human Rights Campaign Fund speech objecting to discrimination against homosexuals and others had no political purpose. "It's just a statement of philosophy I've wanted to make for some time," he says.
he endorsement that really counts, however, is that of the AFL-CIO. In recent years, labor and the Democratic Party have been on the outs. In 1972, many labor unions refused to support McGovern, because of his anti-war views. In 1976 and 1980, labor backing for Carter was lukewarm at best. Labor has never been fond of southern landowners, and Carter's prudish persona spoiled his relations with labor leadership. Traditionally, the AFL-CIO has not endorsed a candidate until the two parties have made their choices, and during the McGovern campaign it endorsed no one at all, leaving union locals to decide for themselves. This time, however—mainly in a bid to make organized labor once again a major political force—the federation says it will endorse one of the Democrats very early.
Mondale has an excellent chance at that endorsement. He is emotionally linked to the last Democrat to capture labor's allegiance, Hubert Humphrey; he has a pro-labor background in a pro-labor state; he is at ease with labor leaders. "If it hadn't been for Mondale, Carter couldn't have won in 1976—he's our kind of guy," says Michael Brennan, chief lobbyist for the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, an AFL-CIO affiliate. This labor connection is, to Mondale, both a blessing and a curse—for it makes him more likely to become President, but might stand in the way of his being the President the country needs.
In Huntington Park, California; this past October, Mondale stood outside a Bethlehem Steel plant, a plant about to close for good. It was the very day unemployment figures had gone over 10 percent for the first time since the Depression (an announcement that many Democrats looked forward to eagerly). When the Huntington Park plant closed, more than a thousand steelworkers would be out of work. Several hundred of them had come to Mondale's rally. They hooted and cheered as Mondale condemned Bethlehem management for pulling out, condemned management for failing to invest, condemned management for paying itself too much, condemned U.S. Steel for buying Marathon, and continued with a long list of union grievances against management. As he spoke, a Union Pacific freight train passed on the rail spur directly behind him. On its flatbed cars were hundreds of new pickup trucks, their tailgates pointed toward the assembly, each boldly stamped TOYOTA.
Bethlehem says that it offered to keep the plant open if it received wage concessions. Whether or not the plant would have survived even then is a question. Such wage cuts might have been worth a try, however. Steelworkers average $22.50 an hour in wages and benefits. The locals are not allowed to offer wage concessions, and the national headquarters refused. Wilfred Anderson, Jr., president of the union local, told me that he had offered to cut back jobs to keep the plant running, but admitted, after considerable prodding, that his final offer was a cut of twenty workers. At this writing, the plant was scheduled to close in December of 1982; now, instead of earning something less than $23.50 an hour, its workers will have been earning nothing at all.
At no point during Mondale's speech did he suggest, even obliquely, that workers might share any part of the blame. I asked Mondale about that—asked if the world economy hadn't changed to such an extent that U.S. steel mills, which compete with Japanese mills paying $10 an hour and South Korean mills paying $3, simply couldn't pay $23.50 an hour any longer, any more than International Harvester should have paid McCardell $600,000. Mondale launched into a dissertation on management's offenses against workers, many of which, of course, were real and grievous, but he would not answer the question. I asked again if it wasn't better for workers to stay on their jobs at lower wages—steelworkers' wages could be cut in half and still they would make more than most other U.S. manufacturing workers—than to lose their jobs altogether. Again he dodged the question, saying only that labor "might put something into the pot" if management's attitudes changed. I asked if "something" was money, and he repeated his previous statement. Mondale would not say, even in the most roundabout way, that unions should shoulder so much as a small share of the responsibility for the country's economic condition. He is as devoted to the ideological premises of labor as Reagan seems to be to those of big business. A month before, in September of last year, Mondale had addressed a convention of the United Steelworkers of America in Atlantic City, and, as at Huntington Park, he said only what those in attendance wanted to hear. He did say, however, that "we've got to push our productivity up." I mentioned to Mondale that productivity could mean more output by fewer workers. Again he changed the subject.
t is no surprise that Mondale should be afraid to criticize a group that could make or break his presidential bid. The question is, is his blind spot about labor so severe that it would keep him from being a good President? His infrastructure-repair plans, which ask considerable sacrifice of taxpayers but nothing of labor, indicate that this might be the case. Another disturbing sign is his stand on education.
Mondale is calling for a strict back-to-basics emphasis in curriculum, an indication that he has freed himself of at least one conventional liberal doctrine; the U.S. cannot hope for a booming high-technology industry, something Mondale and all the Democrats say they foresee, when fewer than half of U.S. public schools require more than a year of science or math for a high school diploma. That situation is, in large part, a product of the liberal drive to make school "relevant," a cause that Mondale championed in the late 1960s and early l940s. Mondale says that liberals were wrong to care about "access" to the exclusion of excellence. There is evidence that he believed this all along: all of his children attended expensive private schools. Among his prescriptions for "excellence" now, the chief one seems to be more spending, especially to pay higher salaries to teachers.
I suggested to Mondale that if one thing about public education can be known for certain, it is that more money does not guarantee better performance. In the past twenty years, public expenditures on education have risen 515 percent, a rate far ahead of inflation; classroom loads have fallen from an average of 25.6 pupils to an average of 18.9; teacher salaries have soared. Yet nearly every level of achievement has fallen. A recent study by James S. Coleman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who in the 1960s produced the most persuasive statistical case for school busing, argues that inner-city Catholic and private schools are doing a better job of educating children even though their classes are much larger, their teachers are paid $5,000 a year less, on average, and they have virtually none of the expensive audio-visual aids that are common in public schools. There is, of course, an important difference between public and private schools: the teachers in most public schools are union members. In unionized schools, firing a bad teacher has become all but impossible; Philadelphia, for instance. has fired twenty-four of its 13,000 teachers over the past six years (meaning that it has kept as competent teachers 99.82 percent), and each firing has taken, on an average, two years to accomplish.
Mondale refuses to place any blame for the schools' condition at the unions' doors. He complains of lack of public respect for teachers, and says. "Good people won't go into teaching today." In truth, good people can't get into teaching today, even if they want to. With unions having made it effectively impossible to fire bad teachers, and most school systems laying off teachers because of declining enrollments, there are very few teaching jobs to be had. The higher salaries that Mondale advocates, if offered, would simply be a windfall to present holders of teaching jobs.
While in the White House, Mondale was a force behind the establishment of the Department of Education, which was created almost entirely as a gift to the largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. (He has another close tie. The NEA is a client of James Johnson's consulting firm.) The NEA has fashioned itself into one of the country's most effective political forces. It supplied 10 percent of the delegates and alternates to the 1980 Democratic Convention—by far the largest bloc—and may supply an equal share in 1984. It contributed $1.2 million to congressional candidates—316 Democrats and eighteen Republicans—this past fall. Public-school teachers, like other government employees, make especially strong-willed lobbyists, since when they vote they are electing their employers. Among the NEA's paramount concerns are higher teacher salaries and non-accountability. (While issuing the obligatory statements about "excellence," the NEA furiously opposes all teacher-competency testing.) Mondale has shown no willingness to challenge the teachers' self-interest, and it's hard to see how American public education can improve until some leader does. This would not be an easy task, by any means. But if the President is afraid to attempt it, who will?
here is one issue on which all the democratic contenders refuse to challenge voter self-interest, and that is the entitlements programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. At Gannon College, a small school in western Pennsylvania, Mondale spoke to an older audience about entitlements. He did not, to his credit, try to frighten his listeners, as House Majority Leader Thomas P. O'Neill, of Massachusetts, and other Democratic congressional leaders have been doing, but he roundly endorsed the continuation of all Social Security and health benefits, and also made a plea for more nursing-home benefits, all to copious applause.
Democrats like to justify entitlements as programs of compassion for the downtrodden, and to some extent, of course, they are. But their primary constituency is the middle class. Entitlements programs will cost the federal government $362 billion this year, half the federal budget, and of that huge sum, only one sixth is "means tested," or related to the recipient's needs. Most entitlements are delivered whether needed or not; $10 billion in Social Security checks will go this year to households with incomes greater than $25,000 (more than will be spent on the entire Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which is targeted to the neediest). Looking around the hall at Gannon College, I saw many anxious faces—older people who were upset and worried, impossible not to sympathize with. But I didn't see anyone who looked destitute. It was a middle-class audience in every respect; and the Democrats—with their insistence on maintaining all entitlements and with their desire to protect labor unions, which represent the upper strata of best-paid, oldest, and most secure workers—may become in 1984 solely the party of the middle class. The Republicans having lived up to their reputation, since 1980, as the party of the upper class, that leaves the needy—the poor, the unemployed, the ill-educated—as an abstraction to both sides.
Because, as of this writing, the report of a presidential commission on the Social Security system is due soon, most of the Democrats are using that as a reason not to comment on the system's problems. Mondale believes that its financial difficulties are temporary and will straighten themselves out by 1986; he does not add that four consecutive years of scheduled payroll-tax increases will be the means of that correction. He opposes benefit cuts for anyone, and also opposes taxing Social Security benefits, which, though it sounds circular, is the simplest remedy yet proposed for reclaiming entitlements subsidies from the well-off. "Social Security benefits are a matter of right, regardless of income," he says, adding, "I don't consider $25,000 a year a lot." (Only 12 percent of Americans earn $25,000 or more a year; they are, in other words, at the top of the middle class.) Though Mondale says that the "universality" of Social Security must never change, he does not advocate making the system truly universal, by admitting government workers, who have a superior, heavily subsidized retirement program (to which taxpayers contribute $3.30 for every dollar contributed by government employees). The only Democratic contender who has expressed reservations about federal entitlements programs is Glenn. Unfortunately, he is in an awkward position to object. Though he is a millionaire, he takes $13,000 a year in military pensions, money that he clearly does not need.
On issues where there is no self-interested voting bloc, however, Mondale has adopted stands that depart from liberal dogma; his re-education campaign, though it may have been initiated mainly for its public-relations value, nevertheless has had an effect on his beliefs. He opposes plea bargaining for those accused of violent offenses, favors construction of new prisons, and favors security guards in inner-city schools. All these positions are anathema to conventional liberals. (It's useful to recall that, not long ago, liberals opposed sodium-vapor streetlights, because they considered "crime prevention" a racist code phrase.) On defense, he emphasizes the need to build up conventional rather than nuclear forces. Noting the curious near-delight that officials in the Reagan Administration seem to take in describing American weakness, he says, "There's no reason to be frantic about our defense posture." But, perhaps in order to counterbalance his endorsement of the nuclear freeze, and to avoid the classic liberal problem of appearing to be "soft on defense," he accepts nearly every Pentagon weapons request except those for more warheads. "High technology is the cornerstone of our defense," he says, and he claims to be undisturbed by the evidence of complex weapons that don't work. He favors a strict hospital cost-containment bill and a shift to health-maintenance plans (in which profits are made by keeping people well and minimizing the services they need) and thinks these could reduce the federal budget by $7 billion. Here, at least, he seems ready to oppose one interest group—the medical profession—by restricting the rate at which hospital charges to Medicare may increase.
In the end, what may make Mondale most attractive as a President to voters is the fact that he does not call out vindictiveness or anger in them. Each of our recent Presidents has been elected mainly by running against something. Nixon was the anti-liberal candidate, Carter the anti-insider candidate, Reagan the anti-government candidate. And each of these Presidents operated his administration in "anti" fashion, practically announcing, from the moment of taking office, that there were whole segments of American life that he would refuse to acknowledge. Mondale, with his background in old-time coalition politics, isn't like that. If there can be a President who is able to inspire a purposeful cooperation among industry, labor, and government, Mondale might prove to be one, but to succeed, he must be willing to say no to his supporters in organized labor, as Reagan should be willing to say no to the wealthy. Washington today is like a commodity-traders' pit, where whoever shouts the loudest gets the next deal, and at everyone else's expense. Can Mondale or any other candidate, of either party, rise above constituency politics and govern? The need is clear. Replacing a President who favors one side with a President who favors another will surely serve some interests but not the national interest.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1983 by Gregg Easterbrook. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1983; Volume 251, Number 1; pages 27-38.