“Fritz is no leader,” former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D.-Minn.) told Human Events in 1984 about his onetime Senate colleague Walter (Fritz) Mondale, who was then running as the Democratic nominee for President. “He arouses no strong feelings of hate on one side or love on the other,” said McCarthy. He is, McCarthy continued, “a rather subservient sort who never spoke out on an issue when it was unpopular, but just rode the tide.”
Now the 74-year-old Mondale is following again. This time it is in the footsteps of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn.), who was killed along with his wife, daughter and five other people in an October 25 plane crash. Five days later, his fellow Gopher State Democrats chose Mondale to replace Wellstone on the November 5 ballot-42 years after Mondale was first elected to political office, and 18 years after his last campaign.
A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll conducted immediately after Wellstones death showed Mondale leading Republican nominee Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul, by 47% to 39% statewide. This is a larger edge than Wellstone enjoyed over Coleman in the last Tribune poll, although the state GOP contended the sample was skewed to the Democrats and said their own polling showed just a 3% Mondale lead.
Democrats are betting, and the odds late last week seemed to be with them, that Jimmy Carters Vice President and Bill Clintons ambassador to Japan will reclaim the Senate seat he held from 1965-76.
If so, then Minnesota and the Senate can look forward to someone who, as Gene McCarthy recalled, “rode the tide” of vintage-1960s leftism without ever emerging as a dynamic leader of the liberal cause such as his friends George McGovern or the late Robert Kennedy. Leader or not, however, whether the issue was national defense, taxes, the environment, or abortion, Mondale (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 4%) could always be counted on to vote the left-wing line.
While McCarthy remembered Mondale as rarely initiating anything original in the Senate, the Minnesotan did carve a niche in two areas: school busing and daycare.
Mondale, in fact, was known as “Mr. Busing” for his outspoken advocacy of busing to achieve racial balance in public schools. So identified was Mondale with this issue that, in explaining why he was retiring from the Senate after one term in 1974, Ohio Republican William Saxbe said it was because he feared the Senate would be “in the hands of social planners like Walter Mondale for years to come.”
Mondales other great passion was universal taxpayer-funded daycare, a concept he came up with as chairman of the Senate Labor Subcommittee on Children and Youth. The chief thrust of the Mondale plan was to dump pre-schoolers into daycare centers run and supervised by what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The plan would have cost $100 million in 1973 and would have ballooned to many times that amount in subsequent years. According to then-OMB Director Caspar Weinberger, such centers might eventually cost $10 billion a year-the principal reason President Nixon cited when vetoing the proposal.
In 40 different defense-related votes from 1969-76, Mondale voted only once for the pro-defense side, said the American Security Council. During that time, Congress cut a cumulative $34 billion from presidential defense budget requests, and Mondale voted for every major reduction in defense spending that was proposed. On Sept. 16, 1969, for example, Sen. George McGovern (D.-S.D.) offered an unsuccessful amendment to cut funds for research, development tests, and evaluation of the advanced strategic bomber (which became the B-1). Mondale voted with McGovern.
When McGovern proposed in 1971 (during the Vietnam War) to hold the next defense budget to $60 billion-$18 billion below the amount requested by Nixon-Mondale once again joined McGovern in a losing battle.
As Vice President, Mondale promoted President Jimmy Carters decision to build “the cruise missile, which renders the whole expensive Soviet air defense system obsolete.” But, in the Senate, when McGovern had proposed in 1975 to delay flight-testing of this very same missile, Mondale had voted with him.
Summing up Mondales record on defense issues, the late Col. Robert Heinl, a much-respected military writer, concluded: “In defense matters, Mondale is an irreconcilable New Left McGovernite bent on dismantling the security of the United States.”
An unrepentant taxer and spender, Mondales best-remembered quote comes from his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. “Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagans bills,” he said. “The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they wont is not telling the truth to the American people. I mean business. . . . Lets tell the truth. That must be done-it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He wont tell you. I just did.”
Mondale proposed an $85-billion tax increase. He called for repeal of the final 10% installment of Reagans 1981 25% across-the-board cut, repeal of the indexing of tax brackets for inflation, and a new 10% federal surcharge on the amount of tax owed on incomes over $70,000 for singles and $100,000 for families.
During that same campaign he made clear his absolutist position on abortion. In a questionnaire submitted to the American Civil Liberties Union he pledged to oppose “any constitutional amendment or legislation that would allow others to restrict or limit a womans right to have an abortion.”
Mondale went on to lose to Reagan in every state except his native Minnesota, where he won by only 4,000 votes.
Will he now trim his left-wing sails and try to present himself as a “Third Way” Democrat in the model of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair? Not likely: At the time of the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Mondale said: “Im a little old to be a new Democrat.”