Although he did meet personally with Mr. Mondale at least once in the five weeks between the final primaries and the start of the convention (and there were many more meetings between the two campaign staffs), he continued his active pursuit of superdelegates until the weekend before the convention, pressing his case—one validated by public opinion polls—that he would significantly outperform Mr. Mondale against Ronald Reagan. He did, however, take the notion of delegate challenges off the table.
Mrs. Clinton has been making a similar electability argument—though polling does not buttress her case to the degree that it did for Mr. Hart—and, right up to the end of the primary schedule, has held out the possibility of challenging the Democratic National Committee’s plan to seat Michigan’s delegates.
If she pursued superdelegates or the Michigan matter over the summer, Mr. Hart said, “that would be damaging, and I think a lot of people would resent it—not just Obama supporters, but party people who want the thing to be over.”
“The key,” he said, “is whether or not there is an active effort behind the scenes to get his delegates through hook or crook, or leaked attacks on him or on his stature as a candidate. If that goes on, it’s very damaging.”
Mr. Hart said that his situation in 1984 was different because his strong finish to the primary season—beginning with surprise wins in Ohio and Indiana in early May and ending with the California triumph on the final day—had sapped the Mondale campaign of the moral authority to demand his exit for the sake of par
ty unity. Mr. Hart figures that because the ’84 primary campaign was less rancorous than this year’s—he cited as an example the angry threats to support John McCain from Clinton supporters at a DNC meeting in Washington this weekend —he was granted more latitude by the party’s leaders to press on.
Throughout June and July of ’84, Mr. Hart’s name was endlessly linked with Mr. Mondale’s vice presidential search process—an instant recipe, as is now argued about an Obama-Clinton “dream ticket,” for unity among the party’s warring factions. (Mr. Mondale won about 7 million popular votes, to Mr. Hart’s approximately 6.5 million.)
Mr. Mondale never offered it to Mr. Hart, and Mr. Hart says he was glad for it. There were reports afterward that one of Mr. Hart’s top advisers, John McEvoy, pursued the spot on his behalf, but Mr. Hart said the subject never came up between the two campaigns. Whether Mrs. Clinton feels as indifferent toward the No. 2 slot as Mr. Hart did, of course, is now a subject of intense conjecture.
When he did finally abandon his push for the nomination, Mr. Hart was quick to embrace his rival. It was easy, he said, because he’d been fond of and friendly with Mr. Mondale in the decade before the campaign—and had even recommended him to Jimmy Carter’s vice presidential search committee in 1976. But he admits that his own political future entered into his thinking.
“I was going to have a future in the party, even if Mondale won,” he said, “so there was no interest on my part in being a dog in the manger.”
At the convention, Mr. Hart’s name was entered into nomination, but when Mr. Mondale went over the top, Mr. Hart immediately asked that his name be withdrawn and that Mr. Mondale be nominated by acclamation. The next morning, he met with Mr. Mondale, promised to vigorously campaign for him, and then went out and did just that—totaling, by his count, 50 to 60 campaign stops for his former foe in the fall.
“I think she’s got to do the same,” Mr. Hart said. “Whatever happens, she has to do her best to get Barack Obama elected president. She can’t pull punches or be cute about it. She’s got to work hard.”
And, he added, even if she suspends her campaign beforehand, she should keep an eye on her delegates at the convention: “It’s not in her interest, and I would think her key supporters would want to keep from happening in Denver what happened at that [DNC] meeting in Washington, D.C. It’s a black eye for her. These people might think they’re helping her, but they’re not.”
When Mr. Mondale suffered his November drubbing, losing all but his native Minnesota to Reagan, no one was blaming Mr. Hart. And when the campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination began two years later, Mr. Hart was the runaway favorite. Mr. Obama’s general-election prospects are far better than Mr. Mondale’s ever were, but to Hillary Clinton, the Hart precedent is one worth considering.