My Exclusive Interview with Vice President Mondale
by Jonathan Singer, Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 05:11:50 AM EST
This afternoon I had the unique honor of interviewing former United States Vice President Walter Mondale from his office in Minnesota via telephone.Jonathan Singer: You were part of a generation of Democrats in the Senate -- including other people like Frank Church, George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Gaylord Nelson -- who helped enact a large body of progressive legislation that makes America great today. But now, the President and the Republicans are trying to overturn much of your work. How do the Democrats regain that momentum?
Walter Mondale: It is true that the agenda of the Bush administration and of many in the Congress is a radical assault on the legacy of Roosevelt and the Lyndon Johnson Great Society years and many of the fundamental reforms that were put in place in the period that I served in the Senate and the White House. But I must say I don't know what the Democrats do to regain momentum.[continued after the jump]
Certain people have to rethink this thing, and realize what's happening to them and to their lives, and more importantly to their children and their opportunities for mobility and progress. I don't think that's happened yet. I hope it will. Until it does, I'm afraid we're going to have a deeply divided nation. At least as of now, the Democrats will be blanked out of the South, out of the Mountain states and out of a good deal of the Midwest, which means that it's going to be very hard to get the Senate back. Now this can change quickly, but talking right now, I don't have an answer to your question.
Singer: Speaking of Rule 22, during your service as Vice President in the late 70s, you issued a number of parliamentary rulings that affected the rules surrounding the filibuster. Given this experience, what are your feelings towards Senate Majority Leader Frist's consideration of the so-called "Nuclear Option," ridding the Senate of judicial filibusters?
Mondale: I'm very much opposed to it and I don't believe it's very good law.
My view is that the Senate can shape its own rules, and the Rule 22 now requires that 60 percent of the -- 60 votes in the Senate are required to impose cloture, and I think where nominations are concerned it may be a little higher (I'm a little vague on that right now). But I think if we ever went to majority rule it would really undermine the capacity of the Senate [to] advise and consent, and I think the people who voted for it would see that the Senate as a unique institution in the world would rapidly diminish in stature.
The Constitution talks about "advise and consent." A President doesn't appoint judges, he nominates judges. The President only has half the action. The other half [of the] action is the independent discretion of the Senate. If it was just a case of majority rule, they'd be able to jam all the stuff through without the traditional ability of the Senate to ventilate these issues. So I'm very much opposed to it.
A long time ago when I was Vice President I once ruled that a majority could change the rules. I changed my mind while I was in the Senate and a few years ago gave a speech at the Senate Leadership Conference saying that I believe majority rule would undermine the Senate in a profound way. So I'm very much opposed to it.
Singer: Now speaking of your term as Vice President, John Nance Garner famously said the Vice Presidency is -- we'll say it as -- "not worth a warm bucket of spit*." You're widely credited with reshaping the office and gaining real clout in the White House. As subsequent Vice Presidents have taken more and more power in the government, culminating in the central role of Dick Cheney in this administration, do you feel the balance of power needs to begin moving in the other direction? Do Vice Presidents hold too much power today?
Mondale: I believe that we did change the Vice Presidency, principally Jimmy Carter. We did what we call "executive-ized" it. Before then, the Vice President was both in the Executive and Legislative branches, but wanted by neither. Under Carter, the Vice President moved into the White House and became a principal aide with the President. I think that's been a very useful, important institutional change in American government.
What I'm worried about now is that under Cheney, a very important line I think has been breached. In other words, I don't consider that there are two Presidents. I don't think there should be a President and a Prime Minister. I think only the President should have Presidential executive authority. And what I'm worried about is that this Vice President has set up, in effect, his only National Security Council. He feels free to go anywhere -- including into the CIA and so on -- and directly press government officials to respond to his views. I'm afraid that the necessity of these agencies and these key officials in providing the President with their own honest advice may be compromised and undermined by this, what I consider to be, excessive use of the Vice [Presidency].
I think the Vice President should never, ever put himself in the position within the administration to appear to be speaking for the President unless he actually has been authorized to do so by the President. Otherwise, I think there's a tendency if he's not careful, that he will chill or intimidate the open advice given to him by key leaders in the administration. And from what I hear, that's going on now.
Singer: Now moving on to your run for the President in 1984, a central part of your platform was reducing the immense Reagan deficit. With a burgeoning deficit today that is set to explode in the years after Bush's term is completed -- in 2009, it could reach into the 500-700 billion range -- is there any possibility of restoring fiscal balance.
Mondale: I think it's a very, very serious problem. We have unprecedented deficits now, and with these massive tax cuts and these other out year commitments -- and the President has been very careful to let the good news arrive during his time and pay for it after he's gone -- that the rising deficits could have really catastrophic consequences for our economy. I noticed today that the dollar is dropping, the market has taken a big hit -- and part of it is that the price of oil has gone up -- but the big story is the South Koreans started selling American dollars and buying European currency. I think there's an increasing shakiness in confidence in the American dollar, which is essential to America's strength.
So I think we've got to do something about these deficits. I would take back those big tax cuts for the wealthy. I would restore what we used to have, a pay-go system where anything you want to do in the budget, you've got to pay for if it costs money, so you have the discipline at the time you do something popular that involves trying to keep the budget in good balance.
In my opinion -- and I worked hard for the Budget Act and I was on the Budget Committee and I did some work on this from the White House -- in my opinion, the use of the budget making process by this administration is becoming increasingly cynical. The Budget doesn't really tell you what the administration knows. It didn't include the cost of what they call the Supplemental for the War in Iraq. It doesn't include the cost of amending the Alternative Minimum Tax that costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Lots of things in that Budget that mislead and undermine an honest discussion of the Budget. So we need honest budgeting and we need a much stronger Congress that uses its Congressional Budget Committees and offices to hit back harder than they're doing now.
It can happen. You know it was just three years ago when we were running a $300 billion -- four years ago -- a $300 billion surplus. So this is a self-inflicted and irresponsible action that's undermining the strength of our country.
Singer: Well you certainly have a wealth of experience in dealing with this and I know your party turned to you three years ago, two and a half year ago, to be its standard bearer after the death of Paul Wellstone. But The Washington Post's Michael Leahy wrote an article this weekend on the treatment given to former presidential nominees, focusing on George McGovern. Do you feel that people like McGovern, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and yourself receive the appreciation and respect from their parties that they -- that you -- deserve?
Mondale: I think it's just fine. You know, those of us who run are just American citizens who happen to be nominated to run for an office. Some of us get elected, some of us don't. But I think it's a very healthy thing in America to remember that all of us are just citizens. We're not entitled to anything extra.
Having said that, I think people like George McGovern, with their wonderful public careers, in his case, a wonderful war hero record and all that he's done for our country and the world, I think he deserves respect for that, and not just because he happened to be a nominee. I wouldn't think that's worth much.
Singer: Speaking of the nominee, John Kerry, this year's nominee, lost the election quite narrowly, and the Democrats, as you said, lost quite a few seats in the Senate, but the House was about even, especially when you consider what happened in Texas with the redistricting. How do you read the results of the November election? Was it as much of a blowout or a mandate as the Republicans have made it seem?
Mondale: I thought it was a marginal, but disastrous election for us. Marginal because it wasn't won by much. In fact in the House the number of seats in the House only reflected the games that were played in Texas; if it hadn't been redistricted between censuses, we would have exactly the same number of Congressmen we had last time. Nevertheless, that four or five seats we lost in the Senate, four or five we've lost in the House, plus the election of the election -- the President this time won, unlike the last one -- I think has given them momentum and ability to shape things that is disastrous.
Singer: Now looking ahead to 2006, the chances of retaking the Senate are perhaps slim, but they're very much contingent on keeping the close seats that are held now. Your Senator Mark Dayton recently announced he will not seek another term, and a number of leading Minnesota Democrats, including Al Franken and yourself, have declined to take a run. Any feelings on who might pick up the nomination? Will the Democrats even be able to hold the seat?
Mondale: There's a long list of them, and it's getting longer as we talk. I'd just as soon not get into particular names, but there's ten or fifteen out there that are thinking about it. I think we've got a pretty good chance of holding the seat. The Democrats simply must hold it. Minnesota is, I think, by a narrow margin, but by a palpable margin, still a Democratic state. And I think if we get a good nominee, and I think we will, we'll win, but I'd just as soon not get into names right now.
Singer: Just one last question about Minnesota politics, then I'll let you go. Minnesota has long been a breeding ground for national politicians from both parties, such as Harold Stassen, Warren Burger, Hubert Humphrey and of course yourself. What do you think of the next generation of Minnesotans? Are they fit to carry the mantle that you--
Mondale: Yeah. I think we've got some good leadership coming up. We elected a lot of new members of the state legislature, we've got good leadership in the state Senate, we've got people like Amy Klobuchar, the County Attorney, Betty McCollum, the Congresswoman from St. Paul. I don't want to get into names, because it gets me in a trap here, but we've got several gifted, impressive young public leaders coming up.
Singer: That's good to hear. Again, I can't tell you how much of an honor it is to speak with you. Thank you so much for taking the time and have a wonderful day.
Mondale: I'm very glad to do it and I wish you the best.check out my political blog, Basie!, for more interviews with Gary Hart, Birch Bayh and others