If reason ruled in politics, the Democratic party would urge its presidential candidates to eliminate the vitriolic posturing from their campaign, and would then begin to concentrate on the only question that matters: Who can beat Reagan? That is different from asking whether Walter Mondale would make a better chief executive than Gary Hart, or whether Hart’s “new ideas” are preferable to Mondale’s old-line liberal values.
What troubles me is that, given the rising nastiness, this campaign begins more and more to resemble the terrible script written in 1972, when another new face, George McGovern, was buried by Richard Nixon’s landslide. That year, as McGovern drove toward the nomination, some of the old, regular elements of the party — ranging from Mondale’s liberal mentor, Senator Hubert Humphrey, to the AFL-CIO’s George Meany — resorted to withering personal attacks that destroyed McGovern’s chances for election.
Now, Mondale and the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland are attempting to do the same thing to Gary Hart. Organized labor is caught in its own crisis of impotence. Having endorsed Mondale, the unions are now desperate to prove that they can actually deliver for him. If they don’t, they will stand naked in the political arena. That fear has led Kirkland and other labor leaders to savage Hart, though he has a perfectly honorable record of support for blue-collar issues. If they succeed, they must share the blame for a second Reagan term.
There are actual and substantial differences between Hart and Mondale, but they have been magnified and distorted beyond reason by the campaign. The real choice should be which one has the best shot at dislodging the Gipper from the White House. In my view, Gary Hart would be a more promising challenger, capable of mobilizing a broad coalition of voters discontented with the Reagan administration. Walter Mondale looks, more and more, like the voice of yesterday, unable to inspire and unwilling to articulate a fresh perspective on the future.
This disagreement over who can beat Reagan is the core of the Democratic party’s dilemma in the spring of 1984. Some analysts think the contest is already over, that neither of the leading Democratic contenders has a prayer in November unless the president stumbles into a foreign crisis or an unforeseen economic disaster — something that would abruptly dissipate the aura of good feeling generated by the economic recovery. Even then, Reagan might benefit in the short run. People usually rally around a president when he’s confronted by crisis — like hostages in Iran or Soviet missiles in Cuba — and Reagan is adept at stimulating that impulse.
Even the ominous rumblings in Central America might be good for the Gipper, so long as the public does not grasp the full implications of his bellicose policy there. But my own hunch is that many Americans are now wise to this game, and fear of what Ronald Reagan might do in Central America and elsewhere is one of the Democrats’ most potent issues.
For that reason and many others, most political analysts predict that 1984 won’t produce a Reagan landslide but a close election that could go either way. Too many Americans dread the prospect of a second Reagan term and its potential for creating foreign conflicts and deepening the injury and injustice of his domestic policies. About forty to forty-five percent of the American public have seen through Reagan’s smile and are committed to voting against him this fall. To win, the Democrats must convince another five or ten percent.
Even though no one envisions him as the party’s ultimate nominee, it is Jesse Jackson — not Hart or Mondale — who has done the most to improve Democratic prospects in that regard. The extraordinary surge of newly activated black voters whom Jackson has drawn into the primaries promises to alter the electoral landscape for many years to come. If Mondale or Hart become president, he can thank the charisma of Jesse Jackson.
Consider these examples: The black turnout in the Georgia and Alabama primaries increased by more than 100 percent this year. For the first time in history, black Georgians actually voted at a higher rate than whites did. In Illinois, depending on how turnout is measured, blacks increased their voting by fifty-four to seventy-five percent. In New York, Jackson had a similar impact.
Opinion surveys have turned up an unprecedented trend this year — black voters, who traditionally have been the most alienated from the political process, are now paying more attention to the election than whites are. An ABC-TV poll found, for instance, that among likely voters in New York, forty-six percent of blacks were following campaign events closely, compared to only twenty-eight percent of whites.
Among people who said they were certain to vote, eighty-three percent of blacks had watched at least one of the candidates’ TV debates, compared to sixty percent of whites. If, through this new interest in politics, blacks can be persuaded to remain in the Democratic fold and support a white candidate against Reagan, then the electoral map of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide will be torn up.