The Democrats' Senior Moment

Returning Fritz Mondale and Frank Lautenberg to the stump is right out the GOP's playbook -- and shows how thin the Dems' bench is

By Lee Walczak

Traditionally, Democrats like to portray themselves as the party of the future, casting Republicans as crusty guardians of the status quo. But that was before the 2002 midterm elections, when the Dems glommed on to their latest big idea: the gerontocracy.

Senator Paul Wellstone's tragic death when his campaign plane went down on Oct. 25 has led Minnesota Democrats to draft former Vice-President Walter Mondale to save the embattled seat. Mondale, at 74, has pretty much dropped out of political life and enjoys an elder-statesman image back home. Oh sure, he lost the 1984 Presidential election to Ronald Reagan. But truth be told, the last thing that made Fritz's eyes light up was President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. If elected in a surge of nostalgia, Mondale would largely be a caretaker senator.

That seems to suit national Democrats just fine as they claw and scratch to hold on to a Senate where they cling to a one-seat majority. Energy? Fresh ideas? A coherent approach to economic policy? Who needs 'em? At a time when Democrats nationwide sorely lack a bench of promising newcomers, party leaders seem content to decant the well-aged port of "experience." How charming -- and how very Republican -- of them.


  Another case where retro politics rules: New Jersey, where Senator Bob Torricelli's abrupt withdrawal from his scandal-plagued reelection bid spurred Democrats to enlist 78-year-old former Senator Frank Lautenberg to take the Torch's ballot spot. Lautenberg is actually a pretty sprightly septuagenarian. But honestly, he didn't cut a very large swath through the Senate chamber on his last tour and is best remembered for co-sponsoring a gun-control measure late in his tenure.

If Lautenberg and Mondale succeed in their November Romance with voters -- and odds are good that they will -- the duo instantly becomes the odd couple of the Dems' 2002 freshman class. I can just hear the morning conversation now as one or another member of the Power Team prepares for freshman orientation: "Honey, where's my beanie -- and do you know where I left my teeth?"

And just in case the new guys want to start a little lawn-bowling caucus, they'll have plenty of company. That's because Democrats may be about to replace Republicans in the Senate as the party of the Old Bulls, now that South Carolina's Strom Thurmond and North Carolina's Jesse Helms, two legendary GOP veterans, are retiring.


  Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), will turn 85 in November. Fritz Hollings, the impossible-to-understand chairman of the Commerce Committee, is 80. Hollings may be for or against the impending war with Iraq. But most reporters who cover Congress confess that without a translator, they're can't be certain. Even a relative newcomer to the silver-haired club, Massachusetts' Teddy Kennedy, is now 70. Yes, he's still a punk by the calendar. But his body is far too old for somebody named Teddy.

Is there anything wrong with turning to an elder statesman or two when your party is in distress? Most times, the answer is, not really. And to be fair, the Dems aren't the only ones reaching for the political Geritol. When Republicans got in a bind over a suitable chairman of the new accounting-industry oversight board -- the prescription seemed to call for a tough-talking, but not-too-zealous, overseer -- the White House came up with former FBI chief William Webster. At 78, Webster has a sterling reputation for integrity. Nonetheless, reformers worry that he lacks the energy and inside knowledge of accounting-industry legerdemain to force corporate auditors to really clean up their act.

Still, it never surprises me when Republicans play the geezer card. That's why they're called conservatives, you know? Far more fascinating is the Democrats' dip into retro politics. Here's a party that seems clueless on economic policy, waffles on the war, and hasn't come up with an effective campaign tactic other than scaring seniors silly over Social Security. In that kind of environment, falling back on Fritz and Frank is starting to make some sense to me. These guys aren't just exemplars of political expedience, as some conclude. They're the Democratic future.

Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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