In a series of posts, we will dig into our archives at the Miller Center to examine the contributions of previous vice presidents and explore what they’re doing now. Walter Mondale recently commented that the relationship between a president and vice president “carries a Shakespearean dependency element about it,” and compared the partnership to “a four-year nondivorcable marriage,” though “at least you get to live in different houses.” In this post we highlight Mondale’s contribution to the vice presidency and his accomplishments since. Our inaugural post in the series on J. Danforth Quayle can be found here.
Walter F. Mondale served as the 42nd vice president in the administration of Jimmy Carter and served as senator from Minnesota from 1964 to 1976. Mondale offered a "Northern presence" on the ballot, and his liberal record on labor issues helped calm the fears of labor unions that were uneasy about a president from the traditionally anti-organized-labor South.
In January 1982, the Miller Center’s Oral History Project interviewed Richard Moe, who served as the Chief of Staff to Mondale during the Carter administration and previously had served Mondale in other roles. The interview highlighted Mondale’s important contributions to the institution of the vice presidency and offered insights into what makes the president and vice presidential relationship successful.
According to the Moe interview, President Carter desired a strong vice president and the integration of the VP's staff with the White House staff. Carter interviewed Mondale for the vice presidency in Plains, Georgia in June 1976, along with several other candidates. Moe notes that the dynamics of the conversation during the meeting is what really impressed Carter and led to Mondale’s selection. Both also agreed during the meeting that the vice presidency had been a wasted asset in the past and they would sit down after the election to figure out a specific role for Mondale. In the meantime, Mondale did his research, interviewing anyone who had experience with the vice presidency, including previous vice presidents. Prior to accepting the vice presidency, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson's vice president, told him that it was the greatest and most rewarding experience that Humphrey had ever had. Humphrey told him that he would learn about the country and the world, and impact public policy more than he ever could serving in the Senate.
Mondale prepared a memo outlining his approach to the vice presidency and concluded that the vice president should not have specific responsibilities because it would inevitably impede on someone else’s turf. It would also tie down staff and resources so as to restrict involvement in major issues. In Mondale’s view, the vice president should be a general across-the-board advisor to the president because he was the only other nationally elected official who had a mandate, a view, and wasn’t encumbered by institutional bias as other members of the cabinet might be.
Mondale proposed three criterion to make the relationship between the president and vice president work, and Carter agreed to all three: First, the vice president must have unimpeded access to the president and must have a standing invitation to any meeting in the Oval Office or elsewhere. Second, Mondale said he must have access to all the same classified information as the president, which was unprecedented. Third, Mondale wanted unimpeded institutional responsibilities. Thus, Mondale’s principal contribution was giving President Carter advice. He also set a tone and pattern in the relationship between the president and vice president to be emulated in the future. The integration of presidential and vice presidential staff, which lessened tensions and paranoia between the offices, was also unprecedented and contributed to the success of the relationship. In addition, Mondale and his staff carried with them lessons learned from Humphrey on the importance of being loyal. In return, Carter said anyone who criticized Mondale would be “out of the White House.”
As others have done, Mondale used the vice presidency as a launching pad for even higher political ambitions. He successfully fended off primary challenges from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. One of the most memorable quotes from the primary contest was Mondale’s repetition of the Wendy’s hamburger chain slogan “Where’s the beef?,” which proved a remarkably successful political one-liner that dismissed Gary Hart's policy ideas as lacking substance. Mondale also infused excitement into the presidential campaign when he selected New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman vice presidential candidate representing a major party.
During the 1984 presidential campaign, Mondale promised to raise taxes to balance the federal budget, which many considered a major folly in an election year. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Mondale asserted:
“The American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. . . . It must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.
Mondale revisited the issue in a Washington Post Op-Ed last year, asserting that he may have lost the election, but he won the debate. He argued that there were political lessons to be learned when considering the nation’s budget burdens today:
The record of Republican and Democratic presidents alike shows that the only way to bring down deficits is to include tax increases in the mix.
Mondale’s campaign focused on criticizing Reagan’s policies, including tax cuts he argued only benefited the rich and huge budget deficits he argued endangered the nation’s long-term economic well-being. Mondale also criticized Reagan’s conservative social policies, such as abortion and school prayer, arguing they were out of touch with mainstream America. In the first presidential debate on domestic affairs, Mondale out-performed Reagan, successfully raising issues about the president’s tax policy and plans to cut Social Security and Medicare. One of the most memorable drama’s of the debate came when Mondale questioned President Reagan on his response regarding taxes:
Fred Barnes, The Baltimore Sun: Mr. President, let me try this on you. Do you think middle-income Americans are overtaxed or undertaxed?
President Reagan [to Mr. Mondale]: You know, I wasn't going to say this at all, but I can't help it: there you go again. I don't have a plan to tax or increase taxes. I'm not going to increase taxes. I can understand why you are, Mr. Mondale, because as a senator you voted 16 times to increase taxes. Now, I believe that our problem has not been that anybody in our country is undertaxed. It's that government is overfed.
Mr. Mondale: Mr. President, you said, "There you go again," right? Remember the last time you said that?
President Reagan : Uh-huh.
Mr. Mondale: You said it when President Carter said that you were going to cut Medicare. And you said, "Oh no, there you go again," Mr. President. And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare, and so when you say, "There you go again," people remember this, you know. And people remember that you signed the biggest tax increase in the history of California, and the biggest tax increase in the history of the United States, and what are you going to do? You've got a $260 billion deficit.You can't wish it away. You won't slow defense spending—you refuse to do that.
However, Reagan soared in polls after the second presidential debate on defense and foreign policy. Reagan also successfully diffused the issue of his age when he said:
I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.
The idea of a missile defense system, and Russia's role in U.S. National Security, was also hotly debated. President Reagan advocated sharing the so-called Star Wars plan with the Soviet Union, while Mondale strongly disagreed.
The Reagan campaign’s strategy to largely ignore Mondale and make the election a referendum on the president was successful. Reagan carried every state but Mondale's Minnesota and the District of Columbia, defeating Mondale in the Electoral College by 525 to 13. Reagan also won the popular vote by 54 million votes to 37 million—a margin exceeded only by Nixon's win over George McGovern in 1972.
After losing the presidential election, Mondale held a number of positions in academia and the private sector. He returned to public office in the Clinton administration when he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996. He also chaired a bipartisan group to study campaign finance reform, and was Clinton's special envoy to Indonesia in 1998. Following the tragic death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota just eleven days before the November 2002 election, Mondale replaced Wellstone on the ballot, at the urging of Wellstone's relatives. Mondale narrowly lost the election to Republican Norm Coleman. Mondale endorsed and supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2008, but later switched support to Obama after securing the Democratic nomination. Mondale also provided advice to Al Franken in his successful 2008 bid against Norm Coleman for the Minnesota Senate seat.