Democratic tough guys

Posted: Oct 31, 2002 12:00 AM
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 politicians. 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 swiftly discouraged. 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.