Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Savoring a Short-Lived Triumph

"I would rather lose a campaign about decency than win a campaign about self–interest."

Walter Mondale
Oct. 7, 1984

On this night 30 years ago, Walter Mondale's presidential campaign seriously began to entertain thoughts of winning the election.

In hindsight, of course, such thoughts were ludicrous. On Election Day, Ronald Reagan won a 49–state landslide. No one has won the presidency with such a sweeping landslide since.

Mondale had struggled since the summer convention to be regarded as a plausible alternative to Reagan, but he hadn't gotten much traction. After their first debate on this night in 1984, though, it was said that Mondale's campaign staff had been "tap dancing down the aisle" of Mondale's campaign plane.

Why were they so enthused? Because Reagan, at the time the oldest man to be nominated by a major party for the presidency, had appeared confused and disoriented on that stage in Louisville with Mondale.

He had not been the sharp Reagan everyone had expected; instead, he more closely resembled the tired, disengaged old man his critics had said he was. But many people had dismissed that as political gamesmanship.

The first debate focused on domestic issues, an area where the Reagan campaign believed it had a clear advantage — as could be seen in the famous "Morning in America" advertisement that boasted of the economic progress that had been made in Reagan's first term.

When they saw with their own eyes, disbelief gave way to dismay for many, and, in the two weeks between debates, the Mondale campaign began to think and act like a campaign that might not lose after all. Mondale himself began to sound and act like a candidate whose fortunes were turning — who just might be able to achieve what had previously been thought to be impossible.

Nearly everyone who saw the debate 30 years ago tonight had to agree that Mondale was the winner. And that made news because Reagan was so far ahead in the national polls. Like Barack Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney, Reagan didn't need to be perceived as the winner; his opponent did. And it gave his campaign a much–needed boost. The next day, when Mondale participated in New York's Columbus Day parade, thick crowds lined the street. When he had been there to kick off his campaign a month earlier, attendance was sparse.

At a rally, Mondale's running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, introduced Mondale as "the new heavyweight debater of the world, Fighting Fritz Mondale!" For his part, Mondale was eager to tell the voters, "Today we have a brand new race."

It was preferable to acknowledging the facts — it was the same old race with a new twist.

Well, not exactly.

Reagan still had a big lead in the polls. All the debate did was give the shaky elements of Reagan's coalition reason to give Mondale a second look. The twist was temporary at best. All that was needed on the incumbent's end was a little tweaking, a little fine tuning.

A big part of Reagan's problem had been a rambling, incoherent closing statement. At a point in the debate when a candidate needs to be as warm and appealing and visionary as possible, Reagan didn't use his folksy approach that had served him so well in the past.

Mondale took advantage of his opportunity. "The question is our future," he said. "President Kennedy once said in response to similar arguments, 'We are great, but we can be greater.' We can be better if we face our future, rejoice in our strengths, face our problems and, by solving them, build a better society for our children."

And Reagan's campaign staffers were pointing fingers at each other. Reagan had been overprepared, some argued. He had been mismanaged. His head had been crammed with facts and figures — when he was at his best communicating with the viewers in his folksy way. Let Reagan be Reagan, many said.

Reagan and Mondale would meet again in their second and final debate two weeks later. Ferraro and Vice President George H.W. Bush would meet in the second–ever vice presidential debate in a few days, and the momentum Mondale had gained in his first debate with Reagan would begin to fade.

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