The Democratic Party needs Mondale even more than Minnesota does

The GOP has long relied on its senior lawmakers to wield power on Capitol Hill. But savvy veterans have been in short supply on the other side of the aisle.

By Sean Wilentz
Published November 5, 2002 5:46PM (UTC)
main article image

In his last-minute, make-or-break debate appearance on Monday, Minnesota's Democratic Senate candidate Walter Mondale presented himself as the voice of experience, the wise elder who could see through his opponent Norm Coleman's fashionable bipartisan posturing and call Coleman to account for his actual, conservative positions. Just as he once famously challenged Gary Hart ("Where's the beef?"), Mondale told Coleman, "Let's cut the fluff" -- dismissing his calls for congressional bipartisanship as a Republican cover to stack the courts with right-wing ideologues.

"What you're doing is sticking with the right wing and pretending to change the tone," chided Mondale. Later the tough political veteran reminded reporters that campaigns are not a "tea party," adding, "The fact is we do have these differences. The public needed to know about them, and we had to be direct in order to do it."


Beware of telegenic Republicans who airbrush their subservience to the ascendant right wing; longtime leadership in government service is not a handicap but a huge asset; energetic glibness is no substitute for know-how and unshakable principle: Those were Mondale's underlying debate themes, from start to finish.

They are arguments that, though directed at the voters of Minnesota, have significance beyond the immediate turbulence of the midterm election in which Mondale has suddenly found himself.

If Mondale is returned to the Senate -- his "sweet spot," as he has called it -- he will bring the institutional memory that this party, with the exception of the venerable Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has long lacked -- and that the Republicans, to their great advantage, have long enjoyed.


Mondale will also bring the kind of robust commitment to traditional Democratic values that has been hard to find in the party.

Mondale is the direct political legatee of Hubert Humphrey. He was one of the Senate architects of the Great Society's enduring achievements. He represents at once the frustrated idealistic hopes and the more practical political side of the Carter presidency. Mondale is a firm internationalist in foreign policy, with a wealth of experience, ranging from his days in the Senate to, more recently, his tenure as President Clinton's ambassador to Japan. By returning to the Senate, he would bridge the eras from Mike Mansfield's reign to Tom Daschle's. And he would do so from an immediate position of power within the Senate as assistant president pro tempore -- an office that, as a former vice president, he would assume automatically.

Historically, this linking of past and present has proved essential to getting things done in the Senate. Henry Clay, the greatest senator of the 19th century, brought to bear more than 40 years of experience in brokering compromises between the North and the South. Along with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, Clay formed what historians call the Great Triumvirate, with each man, in his own way, providing essential, hard-won experience for their respective parties.


The recent Republican Party has had the good political sense to honor and deploy this kind of continuity with such Senate leaders as Strom Thurmond and Bob Dole -- men who, respectively, have represented the Southern strategy going back to the Dixiecrat party and rock-ribbed Midwestern Republicanism. And that continuity has served the Republicans well in working with a White House filled with well-seasoned political hands, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who have long experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Democrats, however, have suffered from breaks in generational continuity, shattered traditions, and the discrediting of their experienced eminences. They have shown an unfortunate impulse to slight and even reject those leaders who have lost national elections -- an impulse that dates back to the intra-party turmoil of the Vietnam War era.


During the Kennedy-Johnson years, Senate Democrats were not only able to work with a White House that knew how Capitol Hill worked, but they also had a wealth of veterans to help guide and instruct them, not least Lyndon Johnson himself, the former master of the Senate. By contrast, having to deal with a fractious Democratic Congress largely unschooled in both party and Senate traditions made Carter's job far more difficult. The same sorts of difficulties plagued Clinton when he assumed office.

Walter Mondale is far more than the carrier of Paul Wellstone's legacy. As Wellstone did, he represents the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's traditions and agenda. He is the kind of gray eminence who has been in short supply among Senate Democrats over the past three decades.

Mondale hopes that he can convince Minnesotans that they need a man of his accomplishments and memory and wisdom to represent them in the Senate. Senate Democrats need him, with all of those qualities, just as much, and maybe more.

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton University

MORE FROM Sean Wilentz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------