WALTER Mondale is finding little room to run for president. His problems are not entirely the fault of his campaign. He has done some things well. The San Francisco convention, the Bert Lance affair notwithstanding, built through a series of singular nightly speeches to a concept of "America as family" that offered an effective alternative to the Reagan campaign's appeal on traditional values. The choice of Geraldine Ferraro to run with him, despite the tenacity of her financial reporting troubles and her feud with Roman Catholic clergy over her abortion views, was imaginative; it has altered perceptions of women's place in politics whatever its measurable impact on Mr. Mondale's own election chances. His laying out, before the election, an economic plan for his four years in office was a responsible act; one hopes Mr. Reagan counters with a similarly detailed proposed.
This said, Mr. Mondale still has little room for maneuver.
It is his job to give the public a reason to want to change leaders. But 1984 looks like a status quo election. There is no great animus, no head of steam, no political energy stirring over basic questions of national direction for him to exploit. The absence of deep division -- over past issues like race and Vietnam -- may be allowing social issues such as prayer in schools to gain prominence.
Take Mondale's big domestic issue, the federal deficit. Three-fifths of the public hold past presidents more responsible than Ronald Reagan for the deficit. Half the public blame the Democrats in Congress for the deficits, while only one-third blame Mr. Reagan, according to the ABC/Washington Post survey completed Sept. 11, after Mr. Mondale disclosed his deficit-reduction plan. A majority are concerned about the deficit; however, only one-third say the deficit is serious now,m which supports the Mondale position, while others say it will become serious later,m which agrees more with Mr. Reagan's position.
And what do the public want to do about deficits" Not much, really. Some 36 percent say increase taxes (Mondale's position); 61 percent say don't increase taxes to attack the deficit (Reagan's). Cut spending" Again, no, not really. Thirty-nine percent say cut social programs; the majority, 68 percent, say don't cut them. Only a slim majority of Americans prefer to cut defense spending to ease the deficit. This helps explain the modest difference between Mondale and Reagan on overall defense outlays.
These attitudes show a very familiar American public. Americans want to keep the Great Society and other Democratic social programs. They want enough muscle to bank up. American assertiveness abroad. Both are expensive. They would just as soon put off dealing with the deficit -- the interest payments on which are the fastest growing segment of federal spending. And they don't want to raise taxes to pay for what they want. The public knows that government is inefficient; it hopes that holding politicians' feet to the fiscal fire will inspire greater efficiency. The bitterest taste in this deficit business for Mr. Mondale is that more people think Mr. Reagan is better able to deal with the deficit than the Democrats.
How about religion? Has the intrustion of church leaders in the campaign, encouraged by Reagan and disapproved by Mondale, affected the race? The public is roughly evenly split over finding it bad, good, or indifferent.
Ferraro? This week the House Ethics Committee and the Justice Department have announced they will look into her past financial disclosures -- as indeed they should. The public thinks Ms. Ferraro has already dealt sufficiently with the issue, however. As presidential potential, the public prefers George Bush over Ms. Ferraro by 2 to 1. And 4 out of 5 voters say they will make up their minds in November on the basis of the presidential candidates alone. Not much for Mondale in this.
We had said earlier this summer that 1984 looked like an election of the whole rather than of the parts, that Americans this election seem to prefer to think of the things that unite rather than divide them.
That is not to say that on issues like peace, the environment, and equal rights Americans are content.Economic change is altering the mix of the nation's haves and have-nots. Still, given Mondale's hand to play, his election challenge is formidable.