WASHINGTON -- The mourning for Paul Wellstone had barely begun
last Friday when the coolly crafted plan to return Walter F. Mondale to the
Senate after an absence of 26 years was already in place. Its audacity
reflects both the hard-edged toughness of today's Democratic Party and the
emptiness at its core.
Fritz Mondale, once the symbol of reflexive liberalism that
undermined the old Democratic coalition, at age 74 has become an icon.
Strategists of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party envisioned a five-day
non-campaign in which Mondale would sail into the Senate after Republican
candidate Norm Coleman was constrained from saying anything substantive,
even though control of the U.S. Senate may be at stake.
Republicans were remorseful over losing the chance at the Senate
seat until their own statewide poll showed on Monday morning only a
two-percentage point deficit against Mondale for Coleman (who had led
Wellstone by two points, according to the same pollster). Polls
notwithstanding, Coleman faces an uphill climb in Minnesota. That feeds GOP
leadership concerns that their Democratic counterparts are tougher
Democrats have failed to "nationalize" the mid-term elections
partly because they, like Republicans, flinched at offering a firm
ideological agenda. However, Democrats excel at the "ground game" -- not
merely mechanics of getting out the vote but a relentless determination to
be elected. The unprecedented candidate substitution of 78-year-old former
Sen. Frank Lautenberg to save New Jersey's Senate seat is the best example,
but Mondale's candidacy comes close.
DFL chieftains immediately decided on Mondale, and quickly
talked him into it. "I wonder whether there is such a dearth of new material
that we have to recycle these old men," one veteran Democratic national
operative told me. There was one other possibility: Alan Page, the
57-year-old former Notre Dame and Minnesota Vikings football star who has
been an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court since 1993. A
law-and-order liberal, Page has led the state Democratic ticket in recent
elections. According to Minnesota sources, he was eager to seek the Senate
seat. But the DFL apparently did not want to risk running the
African-American Page in an overwhelmingly Caucasian state, and Page was
Page might have required a campaign, and that is not what the
DFL wanted. The eulogies for Sen. Wellstone were mixed with panegyrics for
his designated successor. "It's a wonderful tribute to Paul Wellstone's
memory," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, "that somebody of the stature and
principle of Mondale will carry the torch to Election Day and into the
Senate." Amid this Democratic politicking, Republican polling was attacked
as disrespectful to Wellstone's memory.
Coleman was warned. "I was very disappointed with the very
negative tone that Mr. Coleman took in this race," Senate Majority Leader
Tom Daschle told reporters Sunday, "far more negative than it had to be, and
that wasn't Paul Wellstone's style." Actually, Wellstone was a fierce
advocate who gave a lot more than he got in debates with Coleman. Daschle's
point was to discourage hard campaigning.
Indeed, Democrats want no campaign at all. Hardly anyone engaged
in today's politics remembers it, but campaigning never was Fritz Mondale's
long suit. He was selected for all his public offices -- state attorney
general, U.S. senator and vice president -- without entering a primary. He
ran on his own for the presidency in 1984 in a campaign of unmatched
confusion and mistakes. As a former vice president, he nearly lost the
nomination for president and ended up carrying only Minnesota and the
District of Columbia in the general election.
Mondale's promise of a tax increase in his 1984 acceptance
speech was recognized on the convention floor as a monumental gaffe, which
caused long-term damage to his party. In the Senate, he was a liberal
ideologue whose views on the most contentious method of school desegregation
led him to be called "Mr. Bussing."
Democratic strategists naturally want to minimize Mondale's
exposure to Republican criticism. The Wellstone memorial service Tuesday
evening was conducted with clear political overtones, and Vice President
Dick Cheney's desire to attend it was rebuffed. Just to make sure of the
election outcome, the DFL is trying to block absentee voting (usually
inclined to the Republicans). These Democrats really are tough guys.