A 3-Point Plan for Mondale

Walter Mondale has just warned us (on Sept. 17) that he intends to make war and peace a major issue in his campaign. I should think he would; President Reagan's only vulnerability seems to lie in his unbottomed hostility to the other nuclear superpower and in his obvious mistrust of the arms control process. About the only good news for Mondale in the ABC-Washington Post poll last week is that voters, by and large, judge him as "more likely" than Ronald Reagan "to keep the United States out of war."

Mondale is more than a little tardy in coming to this issue, certainly in emphasizing it. Instead, he has emphasized the deficit, the problem that most worries the people who monitor the economy. They are a small group, however. For most people, the deficit is an abstraction, not an issue. It won't become an issue until it begins to bite; that won't happen this year. Also, talking about the deficit has required Mondale to propose tax increases, a commendably realistic but politically unpromising line.

To the extent that he is trying to probe Reagan's vulnerability on war and peace, Mondale is not, in my opinion, hitting the right points. The number of people who may worry about Reagan's record of opposing arms control agreements is probably not large enough to matter politically. But large numbers of people do worry about the Soviet Union and what could happen during a crisis; if there is a connection between their concern and the effects of stopping arms control in its tracks, it must be made for them. Yet Mondale simply dwells on the Reagan record without making the salient connection.

It can be made, I think, and simply enough to satisfy the requirements of a political campaign. One way would be to develop three points: First, the Soviet Union is not an "evil empire" to be shunned at all times except during political campaigns, but rather a heavily armed adversary to be dealt with, not in spite of the hostility in the relationship but because of it.

Second, the Soviet Union isn't the political threat it once seemed to be. The Soviet economy is flat; the problems at home multiply and worsen; the system doesn't work, and almost no one in the world seems interested in adopting it. Externally, the Soviet Unbion lacks reliably good relations with any of the world's centers of political and economic power, and the foundations of its empire in Eastern Europe are shaky.

Third, only in creating more powerful and refined weapons of mass destruction is the Soviet Union having success; indeed, its only attribute as a great power lies in its vast and growing military strength. Yet Ronald Reagan, by shelving arms control, denies himself and the world the one tool that could limit this single Soviet success, as well as prevent the irrational competition in new and more threatening weapons from getting wholly out of hand, creating new risks and moving into another realm -- outer space.

The Reagan people would reply, not unreasonably, that the last point greatly exaggerates their responsibility for the Soviet buildup. Still, they would have difficulty, I think, in coping with such a proposition, provided the electorate actually listened to Mondale state it. They (Reagan's people) would rally to their best line of defense by citing the departure of the Soviet Union from the talks in Geneva. Mondale would have to be persuasive in arguing that these were mainly theater and rarely serious; that Reagan had been driven to them under pressure from our allies; that his proposals were patently non-negotiable.

Once any such argument was under way, Reagan's record on arms control would become a useful debating point. It is a long record. In a newspaper interview published recently, Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, said, "because Ronald Reagan was already looming large in anticipation of the national convention in 1976, Gerry Ford did not find it possible to finalize SALT II in his first term, which he could easily have done, because he didn't want to undermine the ratification process in facing Ronald Reagan, who was fighting SALT."

Like others who are skeptical of arms control, the Reagan people tend to justify a hard line and truculent rhetoric by citing Soviet behavior. Mondale could do worse than note that in 1972, when Richard Nixon signed the SALT I agreements in Moscow, we were engaged in a hot war with North Vietnam, which relied on the Soviet Union for its military support. The early rounds of SALT coincided with the India-Pakistan war, an event in which the Russians were judged by us to be playing a villainous role. When Gerald Ford reached an historic breakthrough on SALT II with the late Leonid Brzhnev at Vladivostok nearly 10 years ago, there were serious differences between Washington and Moscow. Briefly, every administration since Eisenhower's has tried in one way or another to make the world less dangerous by imparting some larger measure of stability to East-West relations. Every president since Kennedy has tried to use arms control for this purpose, and to insulate the process from the ups and downs in relations with the Soviet Union. More accurately, every president until this one has tried.

Tying Reagan's attitude toward the Soviet Union to the anxiety within the Western world about relations between the great powers won't necessarily enliven things. Still, unless Mondale has an October surprise, nothing else is likely to break the pattern of a campaign in which the president isn't saying anything and the challenger isn't being heard.