The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Walter Mondale-style liberalism back?

His 1984 presidential election loss epitomized the decline of prioritizing community over self-interest.

Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale and vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro leave an afternoon rally on Sept. 5, 1984, in Portland, Ore. (Jack Smith/AP)

This week the nation lost a liberal icon and a great statesman.

I met Walter “Fritz” Mondale for the first time in November 1986, two years after President Ronald Reagan crushed him in the 1984 election. He sat in the comfortable confines of his D.C. law office, toying with a large Cuban cigar. Deep, heavy pockets shadowed his blue eyes. The expression on his pale face seemed lifeless.

It was obvious that the defeat had taken more than a physical toll on him. “One day the eyes of the entire world are on you,” he said dejectedly. “Then you lose the election and not even your own dog wants to look at you.”

This defeat led most of Mondale’s obituaries this week. And yet, his defeat wasn’t simply the byproduct of personal inadequacies such as his inability to arouse passion or articulate a clear message and his refusal to adjust to the demands of a modern media age.

Rather, Mondale’s defeat marked the end of an old style of politics rooted in the social gospel and a sense of shared sacrifice — a style that would be replaced with an approach glorifying individualism and self-gratification.

While he never reached the presidency, Mondale’s life in politics offers a unique prism for understanding the plight of American liberalism and how politics changed over five decades.

As a child growing up in Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s, Mondale sat in the front row of his father’s small Methodist church, listening to sermons that mixed Depression-bred economic populism with a concern for community. Those sermons formed the foundation of the younger Mondale’s political worldview. “Our mutual religious heritage makes our obligation clear,” he once said. “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

Like his father, Mondale rejected the traditional American emphasis on self-interest and rugged individualism. The Depression, he believed, stemmed from the triumph of greed over community. By contrast, the federal government, which represented the collective will of its citizens, served as the best vehicle for expressing the public interest and regulating private power.

Like many liberal members of his generation, Mondale pictured America as a fluid, open society, needing only minor adjustments in the machinery of government to create a vibrant national community of shared values and purpose. In such a community, all citizens could participate as equals. That is why he was such a forceful advocate for civil rights. The greatest challenge facing liberals, he said, was to guarantee that all citizens, regardless of race, could participate in the democratic process.

But Mondale was convinced that the best way to achieve these ideals was through gradual reform using the established levers of power. His liberalism was at heart a process not an ideology, his passion for change tempered by his faith in government institutions.

And when he got the opportunity, he set out to wield those institutions to begin the process of reform.

Appointed as Minnesota attorney general at the age of 32 in 1960, he converted what had been a ceremonial office into a center for activist government.

In 1964, Mondale filled the Senate seat left vacant by his mentor Hubert Humphrey, who joined President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ticket as vice president. For a brief moment, liberals controlled Washington, passing the type of legislation that Mondale had been championing since his participation in Harry S. Truman’s 1948 campaign. Mondale wrote one of those seminal pieces of legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968. During his time in the Senate, he also helped shape national policy in myriad areas, including child care, education, welfare, civil rights, intelligence reform — and relevant anew today, filibuster reform.

But Mondale’s impact was limited by changing political winds. The second half of the 1960s was not kind to his brand of liberalism.

The Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party into rival groups of hawks and doves, giving birth to a “new politics” impatient with the pace of social change. Civil rights activists were also frustrated. Anti-poverty programs fell short of expectations. The movement celebrated the removal of legal barriers but saw growing unrest around government’s failure to address underlying economic inequities.

Traditional liberalism tried to build a broad coalition among the ethnic working classes, minorities and intellectuals. But supporters of the new politics called for an updated coalition — an alliance, in journalist Jack Newfield’s words, of “campus, ghetto, and suburb.” Mondale’s young age established his ties to the “new politics,” but his staid style placed him in the realm of the old.

Partisanship intensified the growing divide in the Democratic Party. Republicans provoked racial animus and used potent social issues to divide poor Whites from poor Blacks, ending Mondale’s hope of creating a progressive community united by shared class interests. Richard Nixon vetoed seminal child-care legislation that Mondale wrote.

Austerity, however, posed the greatest threat to Mondale’s style of liberalism, which assumed that economic growth would eventually lift all boats. In the 1970s, stagflation — a combination of rising unemployment and soaring inflation — threatened that belief.

Mondale tasted its sting while making maybe his greatest contribution to American politics — defying two centuries of history to redefine the nature of the vice presidency.

Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, along with Mondale as vice president. Mondale pitched Carter on a vision in which he would be a top adviser to the new president, offering candid advice, having full access to information and meeting with the president weekly — a far cry from the lack of influence of past vice presidents. Reflecting on Mondale’s impact, former vice president Al Gore once noted, “You can divide every vice president in American history into two categories: pre-Walter Mondale and post-Walter Mondale.”

Yet Mondale’s access and influence did not mean that Carter always heeded his counsel. The vice president insisted that the Carter administration make unemployment its top priority. But the president and his advisers decided to fight stagflation by cutting social programs and balancing the budget.

By the summer of 1979, Mondale’s conflict with Carter began to transcend policy matters. He, like many Washington insiders, believed the president and many of his advisers were politically inept, incapable of understanding the inner workings of Congress and unable to project a clear message to the public. It would be impossible for a vice president to announce such strong disagreement and still retain the president’s confidence. For a brief period, Mondale even talked openly with aides about resigning the vice presidency.

After former California governor Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, Mondale prepared to challenge the new president in 1984. To do so, Mondale articulated a new, more tempered liberalism. Like many liberals of his generation who witnessed the limitations of Great Society programs and felt the wrath of the White middle-class backlash, Mondale had grown weary of ideology. Part of the liberal disillusionment in the 1970s, he said, arose from the unfulfilled promises of the 1960s.

Politicians, in their desire to win voter approval, exaggerated the possibilities of change by promising painless solutions and immediate results. Now, two decades later, Mondale refused to arouse expectations beyond what he thought government could concretely deliver.

That explains why he made the unconventional decision to announce at the 1984 Democratic National Convention that he would raise taxes. “Let’s tell the truth,” Mondale told delegates. “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I,” Mondale declared. “He won’t tell you. I just did.”

The public rejected Mondale’s chastened, honest view of the future in favor of Reagan’s vision of an idealized America. Voters found Reagan’s uplifting gospel of individualism more appealing than Mondale’s philosophy of shared responsibility. “Reagan was promising them ‘morning in America,’ ” Mondale told me, “and I was promising them a root canal.”

Reagan’s success in 1984 — he won 58.8 percent of the vote and scored 525 electoral votes — set the tone for politics. Republicans stubbornly stuck to the fabricated theories of supply-side economics, claiming that they could cut taxes on the wealthy without running deficits or requiring any sacrifice — despite ample evidence to the contrary. Democrats have also glossed over the fiscal challenges that threaten their promises to broaden access to higher education and health care.

Somewhere up there, Mondale must be saying, “Tell them the truth. They can handle it. Government is a positive force for social progress, and we are bound by faith to help all Americans.”

Based on his actions so far, it would seem that President Biden, a friend of Mondale, has been listening.