An apology to faithful readers for the dearth of posts this week. In part, it’s because I’ve been blogging around on you. I’m participating in a TPMCafe Book Club discussion on Kevin Phillips’ latest provocative tome, American Theocracy. As my post indicates, I was certainly provoked by Phillips’ hypothesis that the “southernization of politics and religion” is largely responsible not just for the Bush Era, but for its most egregious excesses: huge public and private debt, an oil-focused energy policy, and the bungled war in Iraq. I probably pulled my punches in commenting on this hypothesis; one of the interesting features of TPMCafe Book Club is that it involves a direct discussion with book authors. It’s a useful structure, but one that inhibits me (unlike the brave Kevin Drum) a bit. No matter what he’s writing now, I will always esteem Kevin Phillips for his very first book, The Emerging Republican Majority, which did for political analysis what Bill James did for baseball analysis: create a statistical foundation for a truly comprehensive understanding of trends over many, many decades. In particular, Phillips consolidated an enormous amount of data on the non-economic determinants of voting behavior, especially religion, ethnicity, and amazingly persistant regional patterns based on large, traumatic events (most famously the Civil War). To this day, whenever I encounter one of those neo-populist Democrats who assume that today’s cultural politics represent an aberration from “natural” class-based politics, I direct them to Phillips book for a decisive rebuttal. Though The Emerging Republican Majority is generally regarded as a true classic, its influence took quite a while to develop. It was published in 1969, based in part on Phillips’ work in the 1968 Nixon campaign. Nixon’s subsequent re-election in 1972 seemed to confirm the title of the book, but the ’72 landslide was so enormous and national–and Republican non-presidential performance that year was so weak–that it didn’t do much to validate Phillips’ analysis. And then, of course, came Watergate, the Agnew and Nixon resignations, the Democratic landslide of1974, and the election of a Democratic president from the very region stipulated by Phillips as the hinge of the Republican majority. By the time of Reagan’s election in 1980–which really did validate his hypothesis–Kevin Phillips was largely a forgotten prophet. There’s another book that suffered a similar initial fate–one that in fact was explicitly modeled on Phillips’ classic. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority had the misfortune of being published just before the decisive Republican midterm victory of 2002, followed by Bush’s re-election. It will be interesting to see if they turn out ultimately to be prophets as well. I certainly hope they are.
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By Ed Kilgore
When Fritz Mondale passed away this week, I eulogized this Democratic leader at New York:
Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota liberal political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”
Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.It speaks well for both men that Carter kept his promise and Mondale redefined the vice-presidency, “with full access to intelligence briefings, a weekly lunch with Mr. Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with Mr. Carter’s,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. His elevated role made it possible for Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden to become similarly significant veeps. And he served as something of an internal lobbyist for the progressive tendencies of a sometimes conservative Carter administration, while remaining loyal, which had particular value when Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries.
The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.
He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.
His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.
Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified is shared by Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession. One lives in the White House, and the other lives on in many fond memories.