For Americans, openness to change is a traditional value. Walter Mondale acknowledged this oddity of the American character, which at the same time is a source of its great progressive energy, in his first speech as the Democrats' presidential nominee.
In a rare admission that the Carter-Mondale ticket misjudged the public's mood in 1980, Mr. Mondale conceded that the Republicans had won a mandate for change - although not preapproval of all the Reagan administration has done with its mandate. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey took too long to part with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam; once free of that burden, he almost overtook Richard Nixon. Mondale's attempted break with the Carter past comes at the outset of his campaign; whether he succeeds will depend on whether the American public believes this is a new Mondale, and on how effectively Ronald Reagan argues that there is no such creature as a reformed Democrat except one that votes Republican.
Mondale took an unusual step in calling for a tax increase next year. Tactically, he wants to set the economic argument in a time frame of 1985 and beyond, where huge deficits loom, rather than in election-time 1984, when the economy is humming. It is part of the strategy to draw Mr. Reagan into a series of public debates - which is a risk, given Reagan's convincing 1980 debate victory over Mr. Carter.
There should be presidential debates in 1984: at least three, on foreign, domestic, and social issues. With campaigns increasingly keyed to the television medium, to fleeting imagistic ads, the candidates and the medium owe the public a lengthier format for challenge and explanation of policies and stands.
Orderly change characterizes the American center. Mondale is trying to move to the center to escape a reputation of a too-liberal past. In her initial speech as his vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro raised issues that reflect a Democratic version of traditional values, the work ethic, and patriotic appeals similar to those of the Republicans in 1984. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket is trying to escape much of the Carter past. It is trying to absorb the stronger arguments of the Republican present. It is doing another thing: incorporating rival Gary Hart's emphasis on the future.
If there's one thing Americans like more than the present, it's their prospects for the future. There are some ironies in this. The immigrants usually heralded by the Democrats and the Republicans - the Irish, Italians, Poles, and whatnot - are today's establishment. Today's immigrants tend to be Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern. No matter: The notion of the door open for those willing to earn their opportunity has enormous appeal.
The Democrats have an opening or two. On arms control Mr. Reagan is the first President who has not held direct talks with the Soviet leader since the advent of the nuclear bomb. Then there are the deficits, and the environment. To unseat Mr. Reagan, a popular President in a time of prosperity, Mondale will probably have to argue that change under the Republicans has run its course, or is headed in an unwise direction.
Mondale may not be able to persuade Americans to switch from their incumbent. But at least he can direct the campaign to a useful discussion of changing government responsibility in the next four years.