19 MAY 1984, Page 9

The US election

Mediocrity and money

Christopher Hitchens Washington Walter Mondale's ballyhooed victory there had been anything to celebrate. As it pas, the night of the Ohio and Indiana manes was a dismal one for him. The aitri8e room at the Sheraton, with its unin- ‘Frig cash bar, its want of decor and its cpgy cheerleading, was no place to be. I !uests ITIY stuff on your behalf, asking random what it was about the candidate that hefound exciting. The first one said that 11‘‘;1undale had campaigned for her father in favour. ew Jersey, and she was returning the bt The second one said that he had ,.,,eta at her old college, and was still a there; of the place. Nothing very vibrant fiere; it all reminded me of the venomous produced by the Republi- vas which reads: 'Honk if Mondale pro- li.sed You something.' a,,mondale's crowd is reassuring in one way h':(1 depressing in another. Reassuring, eause it is composed of the relentlessly theund-rate; people who do not look as if foe..Y would kill or take bribes. Depressing the same reason. There were clumps of Die who work for the teachers' union. Th iapere were dowdy, worthy couples who less ab ambi tiout social security. There were the There ous kinds of black professional. ere was a dance band of the sort corn- only described as MOR — Middle of the "cooa Flabby-faced people who had done ciaMiderately well out of the New Deal. Mon- reste s campaign, I realised that I thought, 1, s on the two Ms Money. — Mediocrity and at Vh U would not guess, from a quick look cam's rank and file, that Walter Mondale's Political was so opulent. Trade union Private funds, pro-Israeli groups and sums donors have emptied enormous s into his war-chest. It was this so-called denote rriuneY' (and how often that phrase 1,, otes the thick and rich) which made 7_1110 until New Hampshire, front runner'. the automatic , No b ecutuney, which was Mondale's ally, has been his bane. In recent years, there een a great revulsion against the Political Action Committee (PAC). Jokes about Pacmen gave way to outrage at the way in which well-heeled private commit- tees could buy politicians, influence votes in Congress and stop or start campaigns. The sums involved are enormous. In the first three months of 1984 alone, Political Action Committees contributed $8,600,107 to House and Senate candidates. Seventy- seven per cent of the money went to incum- bents, increasing the already heavy bias against outsiders. PACs are small, rich, manoeuvrable and Washington-based. Electorates are large, heterogeneous, cumbersome and, ex hypothesi, not in Washington. They also only get a chance every four years. A large firm or a special interest group can outvote a whole Congressional district by one well-placed and carefully timed contribution to re- election expenses.

So great has been the uproar over PACs that both Gary Hart and Walter Mondale announced, at the start of their campaigns, that they would refuse all contributions from such sources. This was an easier renunciation for Mondale, who had the large public donors on his side anyway. Or you could say it was easier for Hart, who had little expectation of large donations, tainted or otherwise, when his campaign began. At all events, the renunciation was made. PACs would not be allowed to cir- cumvent the post-Watergate laws covering exorbitant campaign contributions.

Mondale then made a very serious mis- take. During the New York primary, he allowed his supporters to form special 'delegate committees'. These local groups worked for Mondale as volunteers, and they, it turned out, accepted as much PAC money as they could lay their hands on. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, includ- ing union donations which would otherwise have exceeded federal limits on spending, were channelled to Mondale in this way. There was, according to one report, 'a striking pattern of apparent co-ordination' between the bona fide and the 'deniable' Mondale committees.

Hart had his issue, and he made the most of it. He mentioned the scandal in every speech, until on 25 April Mondale asked his supporters to disband the delegate commit- tees. Having admitted he was in the wrong, he found that his trials had only just begun. What about the delegates who had been elected before the shady committees ceased to operate? Were they to be able to vote at the July convention in San Francisco? No answer on that yet. But what about the money? 'Give the money back, Walter', said Hart during a speech at the appositely named Vanderbilt University. 'That's the way to solve the problem.' A few days ago, Mondale caved in and agreed to refund at least £350,000. He also agreed to count what had already been spent against his legal maximum.

The reason that all this matters is very simple. Mondale is now broke — the last thing he expected to be. He also looks, even more than he did before, like the candidate of special interests. Under the system laid down by the Federal Election Commission, Hart has done well enough to qualify for quite substantial funding, while Mondale has already squandered his substance on television blitzes and cannot raise any more money without breaking the law. This will, obviously, make an enormous difference in the California primary. In no other state do television and media kills count for, or cost, more. And there are over 300 delegates as the prize. If Mondale had won Ohio and Indiana, as he might have done without his dubious and inept handling of the PAC question, he would have been so far ahead that California would not matter. But it matters now; matters like anything.

Here is the 'scenario' as seen by Hart's more optimistic backers. They can take California, and run Mondale close even in the old blue-collar state of New Jersey which counts as his home turf. This means that the candidates will arrive at the con- vention without a clear majority of dele- gates either way. By this time, Mondale will be looking shabby, tired and compromised. The opinion polls will show what they have shown all year, which is that Reagan would beat him almost without campaigning. At least on the first ballot, thanks to some changes in party rules, delegates are not mandated. Thus Hart, who shows up better against the President in all measurements of public opinion, emerges from San Fran- cisco as the anointed nominee.

There are difficulties with this projec- tion, but they are not entirely insuperable ones. The Democrats know (in their hearts, as Goldwater used to say in another connec- tion) that Mondale is a loser. They have now seen him throw away one of the most important advantages — a reputation for probity. Without that, he has precious little to recommend him. Even his claims to 'experience' only serve to remind people that he got his political experience by serv- ing a president everyone wants to forget.