If you’ve followed politics for as long as I have, you probably remember the election of 1984. In the race for U.S. president, Ronald Reagan was the Republican incumbent, first elected in 1980, and seeking to be re-elected in 1984. Most observers predicted that he would succeed.
Opposing him was the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale.
I found the campaign for president so absorbing that shortly after Mondale lost, I wrote a piece of commentary on the election. Somewhat astoundingly, I recently came across that long-lost piece of writing.
Regrettably, I never submitted it for publication. Why? In 1984 I was active in local politics (the New Trier Democratic Organization, to be specific), and I was apprehensive about the reaction my comments might inspire in my fellow Democrats.
Reviewing it now, I wish I’d submitted it for publication.
On June 11th of this year, after Hillary Clinton appeared to be the Democratic nominee for president, The New York Times published a front-page story by Alison Mitchell, “To Understand Clinton’s Moment, Consider That It Came 32 Years After Ferraro’s.” Mitchell’s article is a brilliant review of what happened in 1984 and during the 32 years since. My commentary is different because it was actually written in 1984, and it presents the thinking of a longstanding political observer and a lifelong Democrat at that point in time.
Here’s the commentary I wrote just after the election in November 1984. It was typed on an Apple IIe computer (thanks, Steve Wozniak) and printed on a flimsy dot-matrix printer. It’s almost exactly what I wrote back then, minimally edited, mostly to use contractions and omit completely unnecessary words. I’ve divided it into two parts because of its length.
Although Walter Mondale conducted a vigorous and courageous campaign, perhaps nothing he did or did not do would have altered the ultimate result. But his fate was probably sealed last July when he made two costly political mistakes. He chose to tell the American people that he’d increase taxes, and he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.
Savvy political observers have always known that talk of increased taxes is the kiss of death for any candidate. One wonders what made Walter Mondale forget this truism and instead decide to impress the electorate with his honesty by telling them what they had to know (or, rather, what he thought they had to know) about the deficit. By making the deficit—a highly intangible concept to the average American voter—a cornerstone of his campaign, Mondale committed the political gaffe of the decade. One can imagine the glee in the White House the night Mondale gave his acceptance speech and tipped his hand. The most popular theme of the Reagan campaign became identifying Mondale with the idea of “tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend,” a theme that had spelled doom for Jimmy Carter and came to do the same for his Vice President.
Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was surely not a gaffe of the magnitude of his promise to increase taxes, but as a political judgment it was almost equally unwise. Mondale faced a popular incumbent president. All the signposts, even back in July, indicated that the American people were largely satisfied with Reagan and willing to give him another term. To unseat a popular sitting president, Mondale—who’d been through a bloody primary campaign and emerged considerably damaged—had to strengthen his ticket by choosing a running mate with virtually no liabilities. He simply couldn’t afford them.
Some of the best advice Mondale got all year was George McGovern’s suggestion that he choose Gary Hart for his vice president. In one stroke, Mondale could have won the support of those backing his most formidable opponent, many of whom had threatened to go over to Reagan if their candidate wasn’t nominated. Like Reagan in 1980, Mondale could have solidified much of the divided loyalty of his party behind him by choosing the opponent who’d come closest in arousing voters’ enthusiasm. Instead he chose to pass over Hart and several other likely candidates and to select a largely unknown three-term congresswoman from New York City.
It pains me, as a feminist and an ardent supporter of women’s rights, to say this, but it must be said: Mondale’s choice of Ferraro, however admirable, was a political mistake. When the pressure from NOW and others to choose a woman candidate arose and gradually began to build, I felt uneasy. When Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (for whom I have otherwise unlimited respect) announced that if Mondale didn’t choose Hart, he had to choose a woman, my uneasiness increased. And when Mondale at last announced his choice of Ferraro, my heart sank. I was personally thrilled that a woman was at last on a national ticket, but I knew immediately that the election was lost, and that everything a Mondale administration might have accomplished in terms of real gains for women had been wiped out by his choice of a woman running-mate.
There was no flaw in Ferraro herself that ensured the defeat of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. She’s an extremely bright, attractive, competent congresswoman and proved herself to be a gifted and inspiring V.P. candidate. She has, by accepting the nomination, carved out a secure place for herself in the history books and maybe a significant role in national politics for decades to come. She deserves all this and perhaps more. But one must wonder whether even Ferraro in her own secret thoughts pondered the political wisdom of her choice as Mondale’s running mate. If she is as good a politician as I think she is, I can’t help thinking that she herself must have wondered, “Why me, when he could have anyone else? Will I really help the ticket? Well, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot! It just might work.”
And it just might—someday. But in 1984, up against a “Teflon President,” Mondale needed much more. Reagan was playing it safe, and Mondale wasn’t. Some observers applauded his choice of Ferraro as the kind of bold, courageous act he needed to bring excitement to a dull, plodding campaign. But American voters weren’t looking for bold and courageous acts. They wanted a President who didn’t rock the boat–a boat with which they were largely satisfied. They might have been willing to throw out the current occupant of the White House if Mondale had been able to seize upon some popular themes and use them to his advantage. Instead, the Reagan administration seized upon the tax-and-spend issue and the relatively good status of the economy to ride to victory while Mondale was still groping for a theme that might do the same for him. And all the while he had a running mate with a liability: a woman who had no national political stature and who turned out to have considerable problems of her own (notably, a messy financial situation).
Mondale’s choice of Ferraro was compared by Reagan to his appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the sense that both men selected highly capable but little-known women and in one stroke catapulted them to the top of their professions, Reagan was right. But Reagan’s choice was very different and politically much smarter. A V.P. candidate must be judged by the entire American electorate; a Supreme Court nominee is judged only by the U.S. Senate. A vice president must stand alone, the metaphorical heartbeat away from the presidency; a Supreme Court justice is only one of nine judges on a court where most issues are not decided 5 to 4. [We all recognize that this description of the Court in 1984 no longer fits in 2016. But a single justice on the Court is still only one of nine.]
Let’s face it: the notion of a woman V.P. (and the concomitant possibility of a woman president) is one that some Americans are clearly not yet comfortable with. Although 16 percent of the voters polled by one organization said that they were more inclined to vote for Mondale because of Ferraro, 26 percent said they were less likely to. It doesn’t take a mathematical whiz to grasp that 26 is more than 16. These statistics also assume that the 55 percent who said that Ferraro’s sex was not a factor either way were being absolutely candid, which is doubtful. Many men and women who are subconsciously uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president are understandably reluctant to admit it, to themselves perhaps as much as to others.