I made a trip to Kansas City for the Reagan- Mondale debate with two questions. First, I wondered whether there would be a different dynamic in the auditorium itself, watching the two candidates reacting to each other in the flesh, instead of on TV. And second, I was curious to see whether either candidate would allow critical international economic issues to intrude on the sexier issues of arms control, the Middle East and Central America.
The answer to the first question is -- yes, there is a big difference in being here. Like many others who sat in the 2,572-seat Music Hall, I thought Walter Mondale won the debate -- by a smaller margin than the first time in Louisville, but still cleanly. As Mondale challenged Reagan's leadership and competence, the president for the most part stared into the audience or down at his podium -- anywhere but at Mondale. But Mondale looked at Reagan while he was speaking -- as if trying to engage him directly.
On the question of whether "foreign-policy issues" include foreign economic issues, the debate provided an illuminating insight into a blind spot in the Reagan administration, and at the same time a disturbing schizophrenia in the Mondale economic program.
Following a discussion of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill dealing with immigration regulation, Mondale linked the tremendous number of illegals jumping the border to get into this country with the deep poverty in Mexico.
"If we're going to find a permanent, fundamental answer to this, it goes to American economic and trade policies that permit these countries to have a chance to get on their own two feet, and to get prosperity so they can have jobs for themselves and their people. That's why this enormous national debt engineered by this administration is harming these countries in fueling this immigration," Mondale said. With a note of frustration, Reagan ad libbed: "I've heard the national debt blamed for a lot of things, but not for illegal immigration across our border, and it has nothing to do with it."
This was a very telling colloquy: granted that illegal immigration has been a longstanding problem -- a product of a high birthrate, among other things, despite Reagan's comment that the population explosion "has been vastly overexaggerated." But it's clear that anything that worsens the Mexican economy provides that much more incentive to illegals coming here.
An even larger point is that when the president says our deficits have "nothing to do with it," he doesn't make the right connection between American economic policy and its effect on other countries, even though at summit meetings he pretends to endorse the concept of the "interdependence" of nations.
Of course the American deficit and high interest rates have an enormous bearing on the health of the Mexican economy, and on the health of other developing and developed nations. The deficit, combined with protectionist tendencies, inhibits the ability of debtor nations to resume economic growth so that they can service the debt they owe to foreign banks, including American banks. In Europe, high interest rates triggered by U.S. policies inhibit economic recovery.
In his summary statement, Mondale attempted to strike the right tone, saying that, "As president, I would press for long-term vigorous economic growth. That's why I want to get these debts down and get those interest rates down."
I wish Mondale had stopped there. But desperate for the labor vote, Mondale felt compelled to add something about the need "to bring the jobs back here for our children." This was reminiscent of his terrible speech to the Steelworkers Union two years ago, in which he warned that unless we adopted protectionistmeasures, our youngsters "would be sweeping up around Japanese computers" while the good jobs went overseas. Reagan, the supposed free- trader, didn't pick Mondale up on this point, which casts doubt on where he really stands.
But the Democratic candidate can't have it both ways either: on international economics, Mondale is a Jekyll and Hyde who lacks real credibility. And sadly for him, if the polls are correct, his sellout of free-trade principles isn't even picking up the blue-collar voters at whom his dubious and contradictory strategy is aimed. can't have it both ways either: on international economics, Mondale is a Jekyll and Hyde who lacks real credibility. And sadly for him, if the polls are correct, his sellout of free-trade principles isn't even picking up the blue-collar voters at whom his dubious and contradictory strategy is aimed.