A measure of vindication, politically, for Mondale ON POLITICS

ON POLITICS

June 11, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to choose Walter F. Mondale as ambassador to Japan is at least a small measure of political vindication -- secretary of state would have been better -- for the former vice president who has been in political Coventry since he lost the 1984 presidential election.

And, although Clinton clearly didn't intend it that way, the appointment also recalled a time not so long ago when a different kind of Democrat -- an authentic liberal -- offered a sharp contrast in both style and substance to what the country is seeing in this new administration.

As a practical matter, Mondale never had a realistic chance of defeating the Republican incumbent, Ronald Reagan, in that 1984 election. The recession of 1982 had passed and the country was in the mood for "morning in America" promises of a limitless future. The campaign was framed by the national exultation over the glorious military success in Grenada late in 1983 and the Los Angeles Olympics just before the general election campaign opened. When the Reaganites cried "We're number one" and "Go for the gold," the electorate responded.

But Mondale's stature in the party took an after-the-fact hammering, nonetheless. How could he expect to win when he had been Jimmy Carter's vice president? How could he expect to win when he made so many mistakes? How could he expect to win when he didn't apologize for his liberalism? How could he expect to win when he told the truth about taxes?

There were, of course, some glaring weaknesses in the Mondale campaign that had nothing to do with Ronald Reagan's acknowledged strengths. For one thing, the Democrat from Minnesota clearly was never comfortable in the age of sound-bite, everything-for-television politics. Although a man of enormous charm and dry humor privately, Mondale rarely could allow those qualities to shine through the camera. The joke was that Fritz Mondale was so buttoned-up he wore a blue suit and striped tie to take a shower.

Mondale made some mistakes, as well. He almost destroyed the celebration of his nomination at San Francisco by trying to replace the party's national chairman, a Californian, on the eve of the convention. Although he was wildly applauded for naming PTC Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, his staff failed to uncover the vulnerabilities in her husband's business history that proved

to be a major distraction in the campaign.

But the most serious "mistake" Mondale made came from trying to talk sense to the American people about taxes and the deficit. In his acceptance speech, Mondale said: "Here is the truth about the future. We are living on borrowed money and borrowed time. These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids and shrink our future. Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will pay Mr. Reagan's bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth. I mean business. By the end of my first term, I will cut the deficit by two-thirds. Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

Mondale's Democratic allies were stunned by the candor otaxes; treating the voters as reasoning adults was simply too risky. And, as it turned out, the Republicans were successful in exploiting the tax issue to smother whatever chance, if any, Mondale had to run a competitive campaign. And when he lost everything but Minnesota and the District of Columbia, he -- along with George McGovern -- became one of those throwback liberals who just never got the word and shouldn't be mentioned in polite company.

Now the new appointment is a kind of tacit recognition of thformidable assets Mondale brings to government. Although it may never have become apparent in 1984, in his long career in the Senate and the vice presidency Mondale was always a street-smart and thoughtful politician who understood issues and knew who was, in his phrase, "contemporarily relevant" to be consulted for advice.

In retrospect, you have to wonder if a candidate of unabashed liberalism coupled with impolitic candor would have been such a

bad bargain.

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