SOUND TRUCKS PROWLED THE STREETS OF NORTH BEACH THE DAY before, trying to recruit a properly impressive crowd for the rally where “History’s Ticket” would make its first appearance in the convention city.
The event itself, though, was less than historic. Thanks to the limited imagination of some nameless advance person, Walter Mondale introduced running mate Geraldine Ferraro — the newly famous “housewife from Queens” — to the citizens of San Francisco while standing in a hole in the ground. The rally was held in an underground subway entrance, and the small crowd that had gathered looked down on the contrived gaiety from the railings above.
Mondale’s voice sounded harsh against the granite walls, exuberant and unfinished like that of a younger man. “We rejoice because we’re making history for America. This election is about the future. That’s why there’s a Mondale-Ferraro ticket — to prepare us for that future.”
Perhaps the former vice-president did feel as confident as his words. But most of the others arriving at the convention certainly did not share his confidence; they thought they had come to San Francisco to nominate a sure loser. Roaming around the convention floor, bumping into old friends and assorted political barons of the party, I could not find a single person who felt that Mondale would carry his or her state in November. “We lose Georgia,” said a congressman from that state, “and we lose it on the merits.” “It’s going to be tough, very tough,” said the governor of Ohio, where unemployment is still about nine percent but down from thirteen. A lobbyist from South Dakota weighed in on chances in the West: “Slim and none.”
Away from the TV cameras, political pundits competed with one another over who could deliver the most drolly devastating one-liner about Walter Mondale’s prospects. Patrick Caddell, the pollster, said Mondale’s nomination proves the Democratic party is “brain dead.” Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina asked, “You think maybe Fritz Mondale is a Republican mole?” The Reverend Jesse Jackson said that selling this ticket to America was “not going to be like giving away Michael Jackson tickets.”
“It’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Carl Wagner, a liberal activist in the Gary Hart camp. “I’ve been to four Democratic conventions, and this one is totally fatalistic. I’ll bet seventy-five percent of the delegates here don’t think we have a prayer in November.”
The Democratic convention, I decided, was going to be like a birthday party for someone who is in the hospital, gravely ill. Everyone clusters around the bed and laughs too loudly at one another’s jokes. The doctor comes in, reminding the visitors that things look pretty bad. But the hilarity continues. No point dwelling on bad news, no point getting angry.
JUST WHEN THINGS ARE AT ROCK BOTTOM, THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY redeems itself in strange ways. I was sitting in the lobby of the Hilton hotel one morning when someone parked a man in a wheelchair next to me. Suddenly there was another wheelchair in the lobby and then another, and soon there was a parade of wheelchairs carrying afflicted men and women with misshapen bodies. Some were chattering authoritatively; some clutched clipboards and campaign literature. A young Chinese girl, steering her motorized wheelchair, held a handmade poster: CHROME IS A COLOR IN THE RAINBOW.
This is what redeems the Democratic party. A few years ago, it became fashionable to deride the Democrats for their bleeding-heart preoccupation with openness and full participation in the political process. Watching the wheelchair activists stream by, it occurred to me that the Democrats may not win many elections with the “chrome vote,” but the party is at its best when it makes space for those who have been left out, when it quickens the pace of social change and refuses to accept the narrow-mindedness of the status quo.
That quality is what made so many of the rank and file joyous at this convention. They were able to feel that, win or lose in 1984, their party was once again building for a new future, harnessing political currents that are bound to become stronger, expressing commitment to a generous vision of America, despite the mean-spirited realities of today.
Thus, for instance, a political analyst could listen to the lyrical keynote speech by New York governor Mario Cuomo and conclude, as many did, that his nostalgic rhetoric of Democratic sharing and caring was the wrong speech for 1984. It was too backward looking, too sentimental, and it failed to explain what the Democratic party promises to do for that vast pool of middle-income voters who are not poor or black or unemployed.
Instead, Cuomo talked about his immigrant father’s calluses, even his bleeding feet. He invoked the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi as the inspirational antithesis of Ronald Reagan’s social Darwinism. He made benevolent gestures with his hands, like the pope giving blessings. His message to the Democratic faithful was simple: Do not apologize for your deepest beliefs; act upon them. They listened, and they could see that here was a politician for the future, one who synthesized their political ideals with the cultural symbols that Reagan manipulates so shamelessly — work and struggle, family and faith and flag. Cuomo evoked a political vision driven not by neoliberal, high-tech sloganeering but by old values that are still sound. Without those values, Cuomo was saving, the Democratic party loses its meaning.
In a deeper and more tangible sense, the arrival of Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro expressed real change in the nature of the Democratic Party. For twenty years, the Democrats have been struggling to make minorities and women full fledged participants in the party rather than bodies to be counted at voting time. And this year it was different. The black delegates voting for Jackson got to the convention under their own political steam, organized solely by Jackson’s wit and gall and their own heightened expectations for political action. And the selection of Ferraro did not stem from the benevolent paternalism of white males. It happened because it was the smart thing to do. Like all great watersheds in history, it looked risky before the fact; afterward, it seemed inevitable.
No one can say with any precision what dividends these actions will produce for Democrats in the future. The pundits immediately brought up “white backlash” and “male resentment” and talked about the potential negatives. But I think everyone at the convention began to sense that the Democratic party was once again putting itself on the right side of history, willing to risk short-term setbacks in order, as Mondale said, “to prepare us for that future.”
IN THE CONVENTION COMBAT, THE MONDALE FORCES WERE so skillfully organized and overwhelmingly in control that the challengers looked rather silly. Senator Gary Hart’s lieutenants kept pumping up rumors of incipient revolts, but none materialized. At one point, the Hart campaign announced the defection of a Mondale delegate — from Guam.
Yet there was one battle that Gary Hart won by default the adoption of a strongly worded platform plank against military intervention in foreign lands. In a sense, this is what permitted the 5000 delegates to wave American flags so proudly on the final night. They had at last resolved the issue that has divided the Democratic party since its 1968 convention.
Hart’s plank declared the terms of caution and lawful process that Americans learned from Vietnam: “In the face of the Reagan administration’s cavalier approach to the use of military force around the world, the Democratic party affirms its commitment to the selective, judicious use of American military power in consonance with constitutional principles and reinforced by the War Powers Act. A Democratic president will be prepared to apply military force when vital American interests are threatened, particularly in the event of an attack upon the United States or its immediate allies. But he or she will not hazard American lives or engage in unilateral military involvement.”
The Democratic party was coming to terms with its own stained past. The Mondale forces lobbied furiously against the plank. They argued through the night for compromise language to soften the tone, fearing that the Democratic ticket would be characterized as cowardly and soft on commies. The delegates wouldn’t buy it. Finally, Mondale’s managers accepted the Central America plank without a floor fight, because they knew, if it came to a roll call, they were going to lose.
So the Democratic convention put the party on record against aimless military adventures on behalf of foreign dictators. Having resolved that divisive issue, on the final night they waved the American flag, confident of their own patriotism.
MAYBE THE DOCTOR WAS WRONG. BY THE CLOSE OF THE convention, even some cynical old pols were beginning to entertain the notion that Walter Mondale’s candidacy was not hopeless, after all. Given the excitement generated by Ferraro, plus the skillful harmonizing of patriotic symbols with the ringing attacks on Reagan, the convention ended on a note of optimism, despite its original gloom.
Nonetheless, many delegates distrusted their emotions, fearing that the excitement in the convention hall had not carried over into the living rooms of America. A few days later, however, a Gallup poll showed Mondale-Ferraro running slightly ahead of Reagan-Bush, forty-eight percent to forty-six percent. The new numbers were especially heartening, considering that Mondale had been trailing Reagan by fifteen to twenty points only a few weeks earlier.
Of course, Mondale is still in a hole. An incumbent president is always tough to defeat when the nation is at peace and the economy is growing rapidly, increasing personal income and the number of jobs. Moreover, Mondale remains an uninspiring character, while Reagan floats along on his sunny smile, somewhat detached from blame. All these factors should guarantee the Gipper’s reelection.
But Mondale’s sudden surge indicates that, against the fundamental odds, he still has a shot at winning. I don’t think the public loves Ronald Reagan. He is not nearly as popular as the media hype and the White House theatricals would have us believe. Down deep, many citizens sense that the president is more flimflam than reality and that what Walter Mondale says about him is true: the Reagan regime protects the wealthy and the powerful, not the mass of ordinary Americans. The abrupt shift in the opinion polls does not so much mean that people have suddenly changed their minds about Mondale or even that they have fallen in love with Geraldine Ferraro. What it does mean is that Reagan’s support is fragile, and voters are willing to consider an alternative to him.
Given these circumstances, there is probably only one campaign strategy that might work for the Democrats — go for the throat. Get mean and ornery like another underdog Democrat, Harry Truman in 1948. Tell the truth about Ronald Reagan’s government in unvarnished terms and hope that people will listen. If voters focus on Mondale as a leader, he loses. If they focus on the real Reagan, not the slick images, they might just decide to retire him.
According to pollster Lou Harris, “Mondale can’t beat Reagan. Only Reagan beats Reagan. Mondale has to go right for the jugular and hang on. This thing can be won if Fritz will drop all that stuff about motherhood and family and go right for the throat. He wants to out-inspire Reagan, and he can’t win that contest.” All along, the rap on Mondale has been his inability to look like a leader; his cautious Norwegian nature has always produced timid strategy. But lately Mondale has begun to demonstrate the opposite quality — courage. His selection of Ferraro and his somber acceptance speech at the convention showed a willingness to take risks. On the final night, Mondale got angry about Reagan. He implicitly called the president a liar on the question of raising taxes.
Telling voters the unpleasant truth while your opponent promises them sunshine and flowers is a gutsy strategy. Jimmy Carter tried that in 1980, and it failed miserably. Common sense tells us that voters will choose to believe the sunshine promises.
But Mondale was speaking the truth, and I like the grittiness it shows in him. It’s an old cliché, but this man does seem to have been toughened by his harrowing campaign for the nomination. Perhaps people will begin to recognize that in him, if he keeps swinging from the heels, abandoning caution and spelling out the truth in plain language.
The choice of Ferraro serves him well in that regard, too. Given her upfront personality and sincerity, she can throw even harder punches and attack with words that would sound inappropriate for the presidential character but acceptable from the veep. Because she is an outspoken woman, the media will rush to scold her for “gaffes” every time she says something tough and telling about the president, just as they complained about her perfectly sound observation that Ronald Reagan pounds the Bible shamelessly, but his public policies are un-Christian. Like Mondale, she should ignore the media critics and put the case against Reagan as bluntly as possible.
What do they have to lose? That’s what Harry Truman figured back in 1948. The press had already written him off and was busy picking his opponent’s cabinet, while Truman forlornly toured the nation giving blistering speeches. Toward the end, people in the crowds started shouting fondly at him: “Give ’em hell, Harry.” He did and he won. If we start to hear Mondale’s crowds shouting back at him this fall — “Give ’em hell, Fritz” — then we’ll know for sure that the doctor was wrong.