In his 1980 concession statement, Vice President Walter Mondale said: "The people have peacefully wielded their staggering power." No one has been as blasted as Mondale by that power. Adlai Stevenson lost twice by a cumulative electoral vote total of 899 to 162. In Mondale's last two times on the national ticket, he has lost 1,014 to 62.
Often after elections the sluice gates of criticism open as leaders in the losing candidate's party say, with an air of slighted genius, "If only he had listened to me." Not this time.
Mondale might have made it slightly closer with a more plausible (and a southern) running mate, and a serious idea, such as radical tax simplification. Instead, the campaign that began with the appearance of him being bullied by women's groups ended with him promising to appoint a Hispanic to his Cabinet. Ye gods.
The traditional edifice of Democratic politics has been razed, the rubble has been plowed and salt has been sown. There should be no nonsense about the 1984 outcome being caused by tactical miscalculations. The Democratic Party is a refractory mule, but surely this third landslide in four elections will get its attention.
On election eve, Mondale told a crowd that Republicans never use the word "decent." Democrats would do well to quit using it. Mondale frequently said, "I would rather lose an election about decency than win one about self-interest." Such rhetoric, implying that Republicans are not just wrong but indecent, is the extreme moralizing of a party out of the habit of thinking and even arguing, and in the habit of asserting a moral monopoly.
The 1982 recession was bad for Democrats because it allowed them to think that they did not need to think -- that they could coast, counting on the hammer blows of economic hardship to reassemble the old coalition. But by now it is bizarre, if common, for otherwise rational people to ask, "Are we on the verge of a 'realignment' in favor of the Republican Party?" Suppose Noah, in the 34th day of the 40 days of rain, had asked his wife, "Do you think we may get some rain?" At the presidential level, realignment is a fact.
Republicans have won four of the last five presidential elections. In the last four they have won 82.4 percent of the electoral votes, approaching Franklin Roosevelt's four-election achievement of 88.3 percent. And the Republicans have done it with three candidates, not just one political giant.
The nation was moderately conservative, when it chose Eisenhower over Stevenson twice. Next it barely preferred Kennedy, a moderate Democrat, over Nixon. Johnson, the only post-Truman president with a Rooseveltian, liberal domestic agenda, was an accident of assassination and the perceived radicalism of his Republican opponent, Goldwater. Two years later Republicans gained 47 House and three Senate seats.
In 1968 the combined Nixon and George Wallace vote was 57 percent. In 1972 Nixon got 61 percent against McGovern. In 1976 the Democrat perceived as the most conservative in the nomination contest, Carter, was nominated and narrowly defeated a conservative Republican, Ford. Then came two conservative landslides.
Tuesday's election buried the most ideologically uniform and liberal ticket in American history. The ticket was a quixotic offering to an electorate even more conservative than the electorate has been at any point since 1952.
Many Democrats will say that the Republican run of successes is a fluke compounded of weak Democratic nominees and the unreasonably charming Reagan personality. But in four elections the Democratic Party has tried to sell the country McGovern, Carter twice and Mondale. Four such "aberrations" consecutively are not aberrations. They constitute a single propensity. It is the Democratic Party's propensity to disregard the public's thoughts -- not thoughts about Reagan's smile, but about the issues.
Reagan has a right to feel as though he is sitting on a pink cloud over an ocean of joy with a rainbow draped around his shoulders. But Reagan will rightly insist that Democrats are deluding themselves when they say this was a rout produced by his smile rather than by his party's positions.
In the 19th century, an exasperated (and probably jealous) critic said: "Horatio Alger wrote the same novel 135 times and never lost his audience." In Reagan's long career he has demonstrated that in a democracy you build an audience by saying a few clear and convincing things 135,000 times. The lesson of Tuesday -- a lesson so stark that it may be missed by persons in hot pursuit of subtleties -- is that both Mondale and Reagan spoke clearly, but Reagan convinced.