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Opinion Mondale’s landslide loss to Reagan was a rare burst of national consensus

President Ronald Reagan and Democratic nominee Walter Mondale during a 1984 presidential election debate in Louisville. (Handout ./Reuters)

The death on Monday of Walter Mondale, a senator respected by his colleagues, a vice president of consequence (according to the vanishingly small community of experts in the vice presidency) and the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, prompts thoughts about national unity and bipartisanship. For rarely in the history of the United States have the people been as unified as they were in declining the gentle Minnesotan’s offer to serve in the White House.

Mondale’s defeat at the hands of the incumbent Republican, Ronald Reagan, was a historic whupping. Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, a total of 525 electoral college votes, leaving only 13 for Mondale, from his home state and the District. Reagan came up just shy of 60 percent in the popular vote, a mark touched only three times in the century after 1920: by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972.

The notion of a near-shutout in the electoral college, much less a 60 percent president, now seems almost inconceivable. In half the elections since 1992, the winner failed to get even 50 percent of the popular vote. We are a 50-50 nation, with a 50-50 Senate and one of the narrowest House majorities ever.

Walter F. Mondale, Carter’s vice president who lost White House bid, dies at 93

Perhaps there’s nothing to be learned from past landslides. They certainly don’t predict future success. After Johnson’s 1964 win, his political vitality was sucked away by the Vietnam War, and he declined to run again. Nixon’s massive victory over George McGovern in 1972 came less than two years before he resigned the presidency in disgrace.

But might there be threads running through these great modern expressions of national consensus? Might clues point today’s leaders toward a commanding majority?

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When Americans have rallied to a candidate, it has not been for ideological reasons. Roosevelt and Johnson were both New Deal Democrats, strong believers in the power of the federal government to improve lives through active measures. Nixon was a New Deal Republican, presiding over major expansions of federal authority into economics, education, the environment, housing, health care — you name it. Along came Mondale three cycles later in that same vein, only to be wiped out by Reagan, the cheerful evangelist for small government.

Maybe one could argue that the American public switched in that short time from the principles of John Kenneth Galbraith to the principles of Friedrich Hayek. But if so, they switched back pretty quickly, judging from the bipartisan budget deficits of the past 20 years.

Another sign that landslides are a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, expression: Only incumbents tend to win them. Roosevelt, Nixon and Reagan all were running for reelection. Johnson had held the office for nearly a year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Something about those proven commodities made an overwhelming majority of American voters choose to stay the course.

I don’t think it had much to do with the losing candidates. Alf Landon in 1936, Barry Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972 and Mondale in 1984 had their shortcomings on the campaign trail — as most politicians do. But they didn’t lose their elections so much as the incumbents won them.

The why of those victories remains instructive. The landslide winners have been presidents who seemed steady in times of unease and unrest. That’s obvious in the case of FDR, who took office amid a global financial collapse and had a gift for soothing the fears of the country through his radio addresses. But the others had — at least for a time — the same quality. Johnson showed a steady hand after the shocking, unsettling assassination. Nixon represented law and order in a country racked by riots and domestic terrorism. Reagan took office amid runaway inflation, stagnant growth and a sense that American power was in decline.

Winning the American consensus, then, is not about speechmaking or charisma. Roosevelt and Reagan were among the best in those categories; Johnson and Nixon, mediocre at best. It’s not about policies or ideology, as we’ve noted. It happens when a president in an unsettled time convinces the public that the administration is in able hands and standing on the side of ordered freedom.

This is an unsettled time: the Capitol mobbed, cities in flames, police in riot gear. Despite the forces driving the American public apart, there may remain a significant consensus in favor of ordered freedom. We want optimism, yes, and a can-do spirit — but not if your idea of can-do is turning the world upside down. The lesson of landslides may be that American voters will risk change when it feels safe to do so. But we save our big bets for perceived stability when things get hairy.

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