This week’s example is slightly controversial as it implies that telling the truth is a political mistake. In this case it probably was, as it spectacularly backfired and damaged Walter Mondale’s chances of winning the US Presidency.
In 1984 the Democrats selected Mondale to challenge Ronald Reagan in the upcoming election. Reagan was in a strong position as, despite initial stumbles, he was an effective campaigner and well liked by the electorate. This had been demonstrated in the previous election when millions of wavering Democrats had decided to vote for him rather than the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.
Mondale decided to make Reagan’s handling of the economy one of the central planks of his campaign. This was probably a mistake to begin with as despite a slump in the early 80s, the US economy was growing strongly again by 84. Mondale tried to accuse Reagan of misleading the American people, in contrast to himself who would always tell them the truth.
Now, if a politician has the reputation for being honest and telling the truth, that can be a huge electoral advantage. However being honest isn’t necessarily the same thing as telling the public things they don’t want to hear. In this case Walter Mondale tried to underline what an honest guy he was by talking about his tax policies. Taxes are always a tricky subject for politicians. A few years later President Bush’s famous statement: “Read my lips, no new taxes” helped cost him the 1992 election.
In this case Mondale announced during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that: “Let’s tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did”.
While this drew warm applause from his immediate audience it didn’t go down well with the wider electorate. Instead of focussing on what he actually said, a large part of the American population interpreted his statement as a promise to raise taxes. Republican strategists jumped on this, contrasting Mondale as the ‘tax and spend’ liberal candidate vs Reagan, the ‘low tax’ conservative. Mondale found this image difficult to shake for the rest of the campaign and partly as a result of this lost the 1984 election by a landslide.
I suppose the lesson of this is that you can tell people the truth but you should always be very careful about how you tell it to them.
Here is the clip of Walter Mondale at the Democratic National Convention talking about taxes: