October 04, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE:This editorial paragraph appeared in "The Week" section of the November 2, 1984, issue of National Review.
Forensically, Walter Mondale turned in one of the better performances of his career. He looked like Frankenstein's monster and his voice could have unblocked a sink. But, aside from the handicaps that God gave him, he was terse, pointed, and aggressive without being disrespectful. Even a joke or two filtered through. Reagan made none of the dreaded gaffes, which may have been his problem: He kept recurring defensively to points minutes and minutes on Social Security, for instance in a manner that suggested overcoaching. Something certainly threw him off his stride; he rambled, stalled, and huffed nervously throughout the first half of the debate.
The deeper outlines of the debate followed the pattern of the campaign, and hence favored Reagan. He is running on his record, and it has been good inflation, interested rates, taxes, all down; unemployment, steady. Most Americans are better off than they were four years ago, and an important refinement of his 1980 question, which will come in handy in the second, foreign-policy debate America is better off than it was, Beirut notwithstanding.
Walter Mondale's only hope is to run against the prospect of future catastrophe. The harbinger of disaster that he limned in this debate was the deficit's size for three years. Tactically, it is a useful issue for him. Strategically, it is hopeless. The American people do not look to Democrats, certainly not to Democrats like Walter Mondale, to be pruners and belt-tighteners. That is historically the role of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is the party of "compassion" or of Santa Claus, depending on one's point of view. President Mondale would spend "revenue enhancements" as he has spent public money throughout his career: not to balance books, but to spread around more goodies. Mondale sits in the role of a good manager about as comfortably as a hooker in a church choir.
This suggests a corollary to Reagan's broad argument, which he exploited in the first debate only fitfully: Mondale also has a record. For over a debate, he was one of the most leftish members of the Senate. On weapons programs, on domestic spending, on social issues, on standing up to Communism one question after question, vote after vote, Senator Mondale took the straight liberal line. He carried his habits into the Carter-Mondale Administration, and beyond (his reaction to Grenada was pure cream of wheat).
In the stretch of debate that touched on religion and abortion Mondale pulled a fast one concerning one of his favorite bogeys, a Reagan Supreme Court. He spoke of judges "picked by Jerry Falwell," which is demagogic, but also traditional. Every politician has his specters. Nixon, in 1968, waved Ramsey Clark about; Mondale himself has gotten a lot of use out of James Watt.
But Mondale spoke twice of a "religious test: for justices, supposedly stipulated by the Republican Platform. This nonsense was skewered by one of Reagan's answers to an abortion question: The issue, he said, was not religious but constitutional.
Indeed it is. Roe v. Wade, quite simply, was a disgrace: an "exercise in raw judicial power," in the words of Justice White; "not constitutional law," in the words of Professor John Hart Ely, "and giv[ing] almost no sense of an obligation to try to be." A majority of nine old men simply willed it into existence, striking down in the process fifty state laws, including those which acknowledged Mondale's cherished hard cases, rape and incest. Well, if that judicial monstrosity is to be rectified, and if the correction is not to come from a constitutional amendment, then it will have to come by means of intelligent votes by intelligent judges. In which case it is relevant to know their opinion of the law. Right, Walter?