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Mondale Bashes Bush

Mondale Bashes Bush

After a period of silence following his first defeat at the Minnesota polls in last year’s Senate race, Walter Mondale (D) is emerging again to sharply criticize President Bush and declare that he believes taking back the White House is within the Democrats’ grasp.

“This administration has taken kind of a brazen, almost contemptuous, attitude,” Mondale said in a telephone interview. “They almost celebrate their abuse of civil liberties.”

The 76-year-old former vice president, who was the last-minute Democratic replacement on the ballot after the sudden death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), found himself on the receiving end of many GOP attacks when Bush made several visits to Minnesota in the final stretch of the campaign.

Now he’s accusing Bush of ushering in an era of greater fiscal irresponsibility than former President Ronald Reagan (R), who soundly defeated Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

“We’ve been through this once, only this is even more reckless,” Mondale said. “It’s astonishing to me to hear these former high priests of fiscal rectitude tell us now that all of this is manageable and just fine.”

Mondale, who has informally chatted with just about all of the nine Democratic presidential candidates, refused to comment on the chances of individual aspirants.

But amid a simmering debate over the philosophical direction of the Democratic Party, the man who unabashedly embodies the liberal wing sought to downplay ideological differences in his party.

“There’s more in common among these candidates than you would conclude from listening to their first speeches,” Mondale said.

While critics have said the party is in some disarray, Mondale insisted that it is in a normal “period of flux when you’re out of office.”

Mondale stayed mum on the subject of Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican who beat him by little more than 2 percent in an emotional race that drew national attention after Wellstone died in a plane crash 10 days before the November 2002 election.

When asked about Coleman’s claim to be a “99 percent improvement” over Wellstone, Mondale responded, “I don’t want to be in that debate with him at this point. I may at some point, but not at this point.”

On the subject of Bush’s administration, however, Mondale was unsparing. He lists a litany of sins that he said make Republicans vulnerable at the ballot box in 2004.

He characterized the national mood as one of “growing anxiety, in some cases anger.”

“We’ve got kids out at Iraq being shot at every day. What do we do about it?” he said. “There’s a lot of edginess, you might put it, about what we were told at the time we went into the war. Americans will want to know about that.”

Mondale believes Bush’s fiscal policies will be a critical source of debate in next year’s campaign.

He charged that Republicans are attempting to “bankrupt the federal government” and “drive it into unsustainable debt and destroy the government as an instrument of social justice.”

“We’re really playing Russian roulette here with our fiscal picture,” he said.

But Mondale made clear that he will not be coaxed into running for any office again.

“I am a statesman, but I am a senior,” he said.

Mondale described his current role as “getting the dialogue going, getting the debates started, getting people engaged.”

“How can I do that as a citizen will depend almost minute to minute,” he added.

Mondale spends much of his time working from his Dorsey & Whitney LLP office, organizing conferences and keeping up to date on issues.

At one conference, Mondale said he bumped into Coleman, but the two did not talk.

“We were just saying hello at a public meeting,” Mondale said, adding that since the election he has not commented on the Senator.

“He’s won — he’s entitled to that,” said Mondale.

As for the presidential election, Mondale said the 1980 and ’84 races taught him the importance of rallying behind a single presidential candidate, especially during the party convention.

With too much division, he said, “People look at us and say, ‘You can’t control yourselves, so you can’t lead government.’”

But he said the large field of candidates is not hurting the party for now. “This is almost standard,” he said. “That has been true in almost every year when we have an open election.”

But while his party must choose a standard bearer soon, Mondale said it’s still too early for him to endorse one of the nine Democratic presidential candidates.

“It is imperative to let the Democrats have their disputes, that will happen,” he said, just as long as activists “get it over with, and have a nominee and allow that nominee to pull the party together.”

At the same time, Mondale isn’t advising Democrats to follow his 1984 example, when he promised to raise taxes.

“I think I got respect. I didn’t get a lot of votes,” he said, adding that he believes his campaign rhetoric was ultimately vindicated by tax increases during Reagan’s second term.

“I was going to try to do it differently, tell the truth up front and try to get a mandate to deal with what I thought was obvious,” he said.

While that strategy clearly did not work, Mondale still believes that Democrats should be forceful in taking on Bush’s tax cuts in favor of social spending.

“When you get right down to it, the American public want some of these public programs and they are the basis for decency in America,” he said.

Since tax cuts are popular, however, he’s leaving it to the Democratic candidates to figure out how to make the case this time around.

“This generation is going to have to figure out how to deal with it,” he said.

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