(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Walter Mondale has some advice for his fellow Democrats: Focus all your energy on this fall's congressional contests, not the 2020 presidential race, because if you don't retake the House of Representatives first, you'll probably be dead two years later.
"The November elections are fateful," the former vice president and U.S. senator said when we chatted this week. "If Republicans win, that's the ballgame. If Trump can claim the public has spoken, and they are for me, we're in real trouble."
President Donald Trump, Mondale predicted, would feel empowered by a Democratic midterm failure to flaunt rules and laws and presidential behavior standards even more egregiously than he already does. There’s no indication, he said, that congressional Republicans would hold him accountable.
Mondale turned 90 this year; he just got back from a weeklong fishing trip in northern Canada and will be angling for salmon in Alaska later this summer as well as attending a reunion with former President Jimmy Carter.
He stays in touch with politicians and former advisers, as he made clear during a long lunch in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
"That's what I do in my office, make calls and pay bills," he joked about working at one of the city's most prestigious law firms, Dorsey & Whitney.
Mondale's liberal sensibilities, political instincts and dry wit seemed little changed in the four decades since he was a dominant figure in progressive Democratic politics.
He advised Democrats running this fall not only to criticize Trump's personal and ethical defects but to challenge Republican policies that have hurt the working class Trump pretends to champion. In particular, he recommended emphasizing the environment and health care — protecting Medicare and Medicaid and expanding Obamacare instead of promoting a single-payer government-run system.
And as a longtime champion of progressive causes, he said he worries that "the Sanders bloc" of followers of the unsuccessful 2016 presidential candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, display a rule or ruin attitude that could result in a "destructive division within our party."
He also warned Democrats that they should not push for impeachment.
"There is not a strong case yet," Mondale said. "The standard for impeachment has to be very high. It negates an election; that's a very grave thing to do.
As a senator from Minnesota in 1973 and 1974, Mondale closely followed the events leading to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face almost certain impeachment for leading the coverup of scandals that followed a break-in by Republican operatives at a Democratic Party office in Washington's Watergate complex.
He said he does not think Trump is yet on a similar course, in part because of the absence of Republican senators like 70s-era figures ranging from the liberal Jacob Javits to the centrist Howard Baker to the conservative Barry Goldwater, who all felt that a president should be subject to the rule of law
"The only Republicans willing to stand up are either former office holders, those who are leaving office or are in bad health," Mondale said. "There is a political remedy for what Trump is doing. It's called the November election."
Mondale is impressed with the caliber of Democratic candidates this year, noting the large number of women and military veterans. "That's a good message for the party," he said, remembering the days when veterans were often shunned by some Democrats.
He also welcomed the "Me-Too" movement that gained prominence after recent revelations of sexual harassment and violence by powerful men, and he praised Minnesota's U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. He said he thought that former Senator Al Franken, who made way for Smith when he resigned from the Senate under pressure last year after he was accused of groping women, was given "a bum deal."
"Al was caught up in a fever and he exited too quickly," Mondale said.
Reflecting on the vice presidency, which he turned into a more substantive role than most of his predecessors had played, he said he was pleased that the "Mondale model" of a forceful and influential adviser to the chief executive had largely survived five successive administrations.
How about Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he had "a very nice conversation" a year-and-a-half ago?
"I wouldn't want to be Trump's vice president," Mondale said.
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