“I told one of the other senators, ‘You’re a very pleasant, sweet person. But deep down, the public wants a son-of-a-gun. You’ve got to get stuff done.'”
Walter Mondale represented Minnesota in the United States Senate for 12 years before he was elected the 42nd Vice President of the United States in 1976, serving under President Jimmy Carter. After unsuccessfully challenging President Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1984, Mr. Mondale was later appointed as the United States Ambassador to Japan by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Following the conclusion of a 2002 Senate bid, Mr. Mondale has remained active in Minnesota politics, including supporting the political career of his former intern, current United States Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar. Mr. Mondale also testified before the Senate Rules Committee in 2010 on the subject of filibusters, and he published his memoir The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics that same year. Mr. Mondale joins Merion West editor Erich Prince to share his thoughts on the Democratic Party of today, the expanding role of women in politics, and the decline of bipartisanship in Washington.
Mr. Mondale, good morning. Thank you for joining us today. Getting started, last June, you spoke with Bloomberg for their piece on the then-upcoming 2018 midterm elections. You spoke about how Democrats, should they take back the House of Representatives, not only take aim at some aspects of the Trump Administration but should also focus on opportunities to improve things like health care and environmental policy. Now, November has come and gone, the dust is settled, and the Democrats have retaken the House. Are there certain efforts currently being considered—perhaps H.R. 1 for example—that you’re most pleased with? And how might Democrats prioritize some of these health care and environmental issues?
I think the spirit of your question raises a fundamental point. We can’t be seen just as being negative on Trump, although we should. We need to be talking positively about what we can do. And now that we control the House—although it’s hard to get things by the Senate—at least we should be seen adopting things that show an affirmative, forward-looking attitude, and in the process—if we can, although I know it can be hard now—find ways of getting bipartisan sponsorship for these reforms.
We talked about the health bill—that sort of shows what we’re talking about. The House can pass it, and has passed it, but the Senate won’t. But at least the public knows who’s on their side. Similarly, the environment; I think we should keep the need for environmental protection. In fact, it’s a crisis now. We should try to reduce global warming if we can, which is doubly hard when you have a president who doesn’t see the issue and who breaks up international efforts to get this done. But at least we should be doing everything we can to try to enact legislation to hold hearings, hear from the public, and work on other issues that will tell people what our vision of the future is.
You raise the issue of bills passing the House—but not the Senate. It might be an interesting opportunity to talk about bipartisanship. I know there’s a perception that times past, especially in the Senate, were more conducive to things like civility on both sides. Are there some lessons from your own time in the Senate that might be applicable today in terms of getting along with the other side, fostering personal relationships between members of Congress, and developing a sense of continuity with the opposition to get legislation across the finish line?
When I was in the Senate, bipartisanship was a deep and expected part of our duties. I had about twenty Republican senators who were inclined to support bipartisan efforts. I had dear friends like Jim Pearson from Kansas. He and I worked together on so many things. He was a wonderful friend. Dick Schweiker [of Pennsylvania] and I were good friends, and there were others. Our staffs would work together; we would work together, and I think the public liked that. They took for granted that that’s the only way to do it. Now that’s all been poisoned, but I think the Democrats should keep reaching out for ways of trying to restore some kind of bipartisanship.
On the subject of the new Congress, I wanted to ask you about the role of the increasing number of women in Congress. Obviously, your decision to choose Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as your running mate in 1984 was a landmark decision. And now today, with nearly one quarter of Congress made up of women, how do you think that has come to be more representative of the American electorate or changed the relationship between Congress and the public?
I think it’s very positive. Do we want to try to run this country with only fifty percent of the people? Or do we want to try to run it with all of the people? One of the healthy things about the growth of women in Congress, as well as other offices across the country, is that we’re starting to move away from that stag party we were running when I was there. I didn’t like it; we tried to change it, and now it’s changing. I think we’re going to see a lot of good things out of that.
Women tend to be a little less partisan, I think, than men. They talk to each other. I think we may get some good out of it.
So, it’s possible that this increasing number of women may change the climate on Capitol Hill in addition to how it might represent the American People better?
Yes. Not “may.” I think it will. They’re new; they’re figuring out how they’re going to fit there, but I believe you’re going to find a lot of women who will make a big difference. Now, they’ve got a couple of red-hot women, including the congresswoman from Minneapolis, Ilhan Omar. I hope they’ll take the next few months and figure out how they can best work with their colleagues—not just shout—and try to get a more nuanced bipartisanship.
That’s a good point, Mr. Mondale. Your home state of Minnesota has been in the news quite a bit lately.
More than usual! Absolutely.
During an October 1984 campaign event that I took a look at, you discussed Presidents John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman and how their commitments to various social programs were pivotal Democratic achievements. I’m wondering what programs or leaders in the Democratic Party today you think are best fulfilling that historical commitment or mantle of the party?
It takes a while for new leadership to rise, be tested, and build public confidence. We’re not there yet. But there’s a lot of talent out there. A lot of bright young people in Congress, male and female, North and South, who are, I think, very impressive. I think most of them will find ways of contributing answers to your question. We’re not there yet, but I think we will be.
Do you think a lot of that talent is coming from Congress?
Yes, I do. I do. Maybe most of it is coming from the Congress. In Minnesota, we have a divided legislature, but the governor and all state officers are Democrats. We’ve got five out of eight congresspeople. We’re doing pretty well, I think. A lot of them are new and feeling the way. That’s just the way it is when you’re brand-new at a job like that. But I’m pleased with what they’re doing. I’ve had concerns about my congresswoman here from Minneapolis, but maybe she’s getting better too.
So, there’s a bit of a steep learning curve when you first get to Congress. Is that something you experienced when you got there as well?
Yes! First of all, you’ve got to learn. There’s a tendency to remain quiet while you learn, but you also have to show the public that you can lead. So, you’ve got to find a couple of issues where you can step out and handle it—handle the debates, handle fights, and give your constituents the idea that you can handle the rough side of politics. I found that when you’ve handled a couple of tough issues that people will look at you differently, even if you lose.
I told one of the other senators, “You’re a very pleasant, sweet person. But deep down, the public wants a son-of-a-gun. You’ve got to get stuff done.”
I remember there was a floor speech that Senator Johnny Isakson gave when Thad Cochran was retiring. He [Senator Isakson] talked about this perception that when you first get to a legislature about being quiet and knowing your place, so to speak. You are kind of respectfully watching for maybe your first couple of years, and then moving out from there. But you’re saying, Mr. Mondale, you should want to show your constituents that you’re there to fight for a cause or an issue?
Yes, and I don’t think you need to wait two years. Not right away, but maybe in half of a year people are going to start hearing the rumbles.
I suppose a number of the freshmen members of Congress who are just getting here today are making their mark early and raising a lot of issues in committee hearings and getting a lot of camera time. Some of them have jumped into the fray lock, stock, and barrel.
They have. Some of it has been good, and some of it has been less than impressive. That’s always been true; nothing new there. But if they won’t try and won’t get out there, then they won’t learn. I always encourage them, “Pick a fight. Go out there and prove your stuff.”
Mr. Mondale, thank you for speaking. A pleasure to touch base this morning.