Is Joe Biden as “safe” a choice as Walter Mondale was in 1984?
The front-runner: former vice president. Long, distinguished career in the Senate. Centrist. Close ties to unions. Proven fundraising ability.
The challenger: wonky intellectual. Appeals to younger more progressive voters. Eschews money from Political Action Committees.
The election year: 1984.
The election year: 2020.
I am surprised to see so little comparison made between Walter Mondale in 1984 and Joe Biden. I’m surprised that so little comparison is being made between Elizabeth Warren, who was nearly written off early on but is rapidly gaining in the polls, and Gary Hart, who was polling in the teens at this time in 1983. Hart had been George McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972 and came from nowhere in the polls to challenge the inevitability of Walter Mondale by appealing to a younger activist generation — “Baby Boomers” and “Yuppies”. Hart won more primaries and caucuses than Mondale, but the former vice president won larger states with more pledged delegates.
As a Boomer myself, in 1984, I was so energized by Gary Hart’s candidacy that I went to my state convention for the first time and was elected a delegate to the national convention. I believed that the superdelegates in the Party would see the enthusiasm for Hart and understand that success in the general election depended on nominating him. Their support would be enough to give him the nomination. But Mondale, seen as more “electable” than Hart, won the superdelegates and the nomination.
Mondale’s “electability” was an illusion. He lost to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a popular president who would have been hard to beat, but even Mondale saw what the stalwarts in the Party failed to acknowledge: The energy in the Party favored a shift from the traditional leadership model to one that was new and more activist. He tried to tap into the energy and activism of Hart supporters by choosing a woman as his running mate. Geraldine Ferraro was a historic choice, but people don’t get out and knock on doors for a vice presidential candidate. They don’t vote for the vice president. The energy for Mondale just wasn’t there. He won only his home state of Minnesota.
As a Boomer in 2019, I’m surprised when I see social media posts and pundits that assume my age would put me among those preferring the more centrist candidacy of Joe Biden. In many ways, I continue to be the person I was in 1984 — willing to put my energy toward candidates who are smart and offer a vision for a bold and better future. I was an out-of-state volunteer for Hillary Clinton in last weeks of the 2016 election. As an out-of-state volunteer in Texas in 2018, I got pneumonia knocking on doors for Beto O’Rourke.
In 1984, Mondale was considered the safe choice. It was a disaster. I fear we are headed for the same outcome in 2020 if we follow the same roadmap. I fear that those who believe Joe Biden is a “safe” nominee are mistakenly attributing Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 to the country not being “ready” for a woman. They forget she won the popular vote and that we will never know the extent to which Russian interference impacted the election. I fear that if we are timid at this critical time, we will not only miss the opportunity to nominate the candidate the country needs as president, we will lose the election.
Yes, Biden leads in the polls — today. But the combined support for Sanders and Warren dwarfs Biden’s. Sanders and Warren have similar constituencies: young, idealist voters who are relatively new to political activism as well as Boomers like me, a group that includes anti-war activists who campaigned for McGovern, feminists who protested in the 1960s and participated in the Women’s March in 2017, civil rights activists and others who have been at the forefront of every major social change of the last 50 years. But if Sanders and Warren continue to divide that support, Biden may win the nomination. I will vote for him if that’s the case, but I think we will not see the kind of enthusiasm for him that will win the election.
The 2020 presidential election is the most high-stakes election of my life. The future of our country is always at stake, but we’ve seen the damage that a Trump presidency can do. To give him another four years would be disastrous for our country and for our relationships with the world, not to mention our planet. Trump has re-written the rule book. We don’t know what it will take to defeat him in 2020, but we need a candidate that energizes the electorate the way Hart did in 1984, the way Obama did in 2008, not someone who is “safe.” There is no such thing in politics.