WHY DO THE DEMOCRATS like to shoot themselves in the feet? Every four years, the same questions are raised by the faithfuls as to what the party should stand for and what us the proper tack to beat the Republicans. And every four years--be it 1968, 1972, 1976, or 1980--the party engages in a massive internal bloodletting. Not that the questions members beat each other over the head with aren't significant. They are, Who is the truer liberal? Who is the most electable in the November run-off? Democrats have rightly had to struggle among themselves to choose between the Humphrey's and the McCarthy's; the Muskie's and the McGovern's the Carter's and the Kennedy's.
But 1984 is different.
Not in the last twenty years has the party been offered so clear a choice of a candidate who can bridge all its concern and constituencies. A candidate who is a true-blue liberal. A candidate who has a keen, working understanding of how government works, of its potentialities and limitations. And one who, despite what all the pundits say, has as solid a chance as anybody in the race of being elected President in November.
That candidate is Walter F. Mondale. That the liberal electorate in this country is not rushing to his banner is testimony to the power of fabricated images and the ability of his opponents--namely Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo)--to pull a snow job on the American people.
During his more than twenty years in public series, Mondale has staked out a clear position for himself as an unreconstructed--but thinking man's--liberal, taking the right stands on issues ranging from civil rights and health care to defense spending and labor problems. And he has done it the hard way--not by acting or sitting in some law office, but by working the political battles from the ground up, fighting tooth and nail over hundreds of issues on his way up from Minnesota attorney general to senator to vice president.
It is true, of course, that for all the differences among the Democratic contenders, any one of them is preferable to another four years of Ronald Reagan. But it is also important to strip away all the slogans and pieties masking the candidates and to realize that, among the Democratic hopefuls, Mondale offers the most realistic chance of turning around four years of Reaganism after reaching the Oval Office. After years of internecine strife, the Democratic candidates of 1984 stand fairly close on the issues; but it is only Mondale who has convincingly demonstrated through his long government experience that he can turn a liberal platform into practical policies. While other candidates talk big, Mondale does big.
In terms of civil rights, for instance, Mondale has been far ahead in the game, making the case for racial integration when the cause was not all that popular. He was one of the sponsors of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and introduced fair housing legislation in 1967 and 1968. And then in the early '70s--as the idea of civil rights took a beating with the advent of the anti-busing movement--Mondale chaired a Senate Committee that pushed for new aid for school desegregation, Mondale was also one of the original writers of Medicaid legislation, and he helped create the Legal Services Corporation, which Reagan has since tried to gut.
Mondale has also been a longstanding critic of Pentagon waste. And while Hart has made a name for himself as a "defense reformer", Mondale was talking about these issues long before the Colorado senator began proselytizing his new ideas. As a senator, Mondale led the fight against MIRVs and the B-1 bomber, and as vice president he lobbied successfully for a presidential veto of congressional authorization of billions of dollars for a nuclear aircraft carrier, an issue Hart claims to have taken the lead on.
It's no accident that Mondale has been endorsed by a host of party leaders; they know him as a man of his word who turns ideas into policy through politics as it ought to be practiced--through coalition building and compromising that makes up good government--not by posturing. Democrats this year should reject the pathetic backlash against government experience and leadership that seems to arise among the electorate every four years and leads to presidents like Reagan.
Mondale, it is true, offers a traditional New Deal-style platform, but what is so bad about that? Domestically, he supports more money for social programs--much of which means restoring Reagan budget cuts in programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. He wants to direct more than $10 billion to solve problems of education, including stepping up math and science scholarship and improving classroom teaching. He plans to put back money Reagan cut from water and land conservation programs, and cleaning up toxic waste. In addition to supporting traditional Democratic jobs programs, Mondale acknowledges the need for "industrial policy," proposing long-term business/labor/government cooperation in resuscitating basic industries. Abroad, he offers a moderate foreign policy which emphasizes negotiations over the Reagan big stick approach on the Soviet Union and Central America. Mondale backs a nuclear freeze, and wants to give developing countries economic aid--not arms.
To finance these ambitious programs, Mondale advocates tax reform and cutting back in defense spending. Mondale wants to reduce the budget deficit through a combined program of: eliminating weapons systems like the MX missile and the B-1; across-the-board hospital cost containment; repealing tax code indexation; and capping the third year of Reagan's tax cut for the rich.
Certain parts of the platform are ill-advised - principally Mondale's support for domestic content legislation. But in general we like the way Mondale actively affirms that government is the solution--the basic liberal premise--while Hart trumpets a message that hedges on the central question of whether government is something you campaign for or against.
Mondale has taken a lot of abuse for being beholden to so-called special interests, but what does that mean? He has accepted endorsements by organized labor, teachers and womens groups, prominent minorities, and party leaders--backing any one of his opponents would have taken at a moment's notice. These are not ill-gotten friends--they are among the foremost groups being assaulted by Reagan, and Mondale should be proud for their support.
Why should the Democrats go against their interests once again and nominate someone like Hart, who hasn't shown he has the capacity to translate intriguing ideas into tangible policy. We ask the same of McGovern, whom we respect for his idealism but don't believe has shown the requisite understanding for translating that idealism into policy. The Hart juggernaut is far from unstoppable; that's what they said about Mondale only two weeks ago. The race is far from over. Democrats in Massachusetts should vote for Mondale on Tuesday. In doing so, they would only be following their best instincts and traditions.