A political party that must put its best foot forward if it is to dislodge Ronald Reagan cannot be divided if it is to succeed. Yet a decided split between the front-runners for president, Mondale and Glenn, is appearing. If it gets ugly and polarization sets in, the Democrats can forget the White House for 1984 .
It is arguable whether party divisions defeated Carter in 1980. But the former President takes the position that the challenge from Ted Kennedy was a body blow from which he never was able to recover.
Carter's chief political advisers said that Reagan would be the easiest of Carter's potential GOP rivals. And he still believes this. Carter sees the sharp attack from the Kennedy forces as a dilution of party allegiance that meant that any of the Republican adversaries, including Reagan, would likely triumph. Carter doesn't discount the severe drag on his campaign imposed by the Iranian hostage situation. But he thinks he might well have won, despite the Iranian problem, had he had a unified party behind him.
Now it is Carter's vice-president and the astronaut hero who are beginning to cut each other up politically. Personally, both Mondale and Glenn are very amiable fellows who would usually eschew the low road of intramural party combat that can lead to party division. And they both reflect about the same political ideology. They are both somewhere around the center, with Mondale only slightly to the left of Glenn.
Were they not antagonists, they would likely be friendly partners in arms.
Who then is at fault? Doubtless the battle of words is escalating because the struggle for the nomination itself is simply heating up.
Glenn may have thrown the first stone when he accused Mondale of catering to special interests. Or it may be said that Mondale provided the first cause for dissension when he made such a strong and successful bid for support from several influential groups, particularly the AFL-CIO and the NEA - the education union that helped Carter beat Kennedy.
Actually, it is the fact that Mondale is threatening to wrap up the nomination very early, even before the primaries begin, that is causing his opponents to get a little panicky and a lot sharper in their comments about the Minnesotan and what he stands for.
The sequence of what happened next is difficult to pinpoint. For a long time the Mondale people had been citing Glenn's vote in support of Reagan's tax cut as an example of disaffection from party principles. Since then Mondale has been trying to depict Glenn as a disciple of Reaganomics. And Glenn has been denying an allegiance to Reagan economics. He says he voted that way simply because something had to be done and that the Democratic administration hadn't come up with any acceptable alternative.
Is the emerging division irreparable? Of course not. One can easily envision a coming together of these two warriors at convention time, with either taking the second spot on the ticket. Nothing at all like what amounted to a 1980 walkout by Kennedy and the liberal wing of the party seems likely.
It is important that the candidates' positions on issues be pointed out and clarified. But the candidates can't get too rough in their accusations about each other. They must remember that they are all Democrats.