Liberalism's Heart

"Of my three campaigns, this one has generated the most emotion, the most volunteers," Paul Wellstone told me on an unseasonably cool and beautiful afternoon in late August as his legendary green campaign bus bounced along down some Minnesota byway. "My supporters think there's just so much at stake, so much to lose."

His supporters were audible at almost every turn in the road. Everybody in Minnesota knew Wellstone; everybody knew his bus, and as they saw it coming they would honk and wave, or, if dedicated Wellstone haters, honk and give the finger. Although, as Wellstone would marvel later that day, he no longer seemed to inspire the intense dislike you'd expect a figure who took so many unpopular stances to generate. After debating his Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, at a game fair (for hunters and their dogs), where at least a third of the booths had guns for sale, he came away pleased and surprised: "I would have expected more hostility," he told me. "It wasn't there."

But then, Wellstone had a genius for passionate advocacy without becoming a polarizing figure. His passion itself -- a passion so unmediated that he characteristically ended his speeches jumping and shouting -- was disarming; so was his love of face-to-face, one-on-one politics. When Wellstone was in the room, it wasn't just that no hand went unshook; it was that no story was unheard, no serious argument unvoiced.

For Wellstone, a campaign stop invariably had the aspect of a reunion: No public figure I've ever seen had bonded to so many constituents. Many he knew long before they were constituents, from his years teaching politics (that is, organizing) at Carleton College, from his years walking the line for striking workers and dispossessed farmers. At each stop I accompanied him to during my time in Minnesota, he was meeting people and calling out across the room to Sheila, his wife, "Look who's here!" Just as Sheila, who was every bit the people-pol that Paul was, was meeting old acquaintances and shouting to her husband to come meet someone else.

And the people certainly came out to meet him. He was the genuine article, the pol who didn't cut corners, who voted against welfare reform a few months before he was up for re-election in 1996, who voted against authorizing a preventive war in Iraq a few weeks before he was up for re-election this year. He didn't vote as consultants would have him vote; he didn't look as consultants would have him look (he was capable of looking scruffy in a new suit); he didn't speak, not with all that jumping and shouting, as consultants would have him speak. Not that he disdained consultants; but his consultants understood that what you sold when selling Wellstone was his unconsultability: his conscience, his authenticity, his humanity. For those who couldn't see it when he was alive, his death has made one thing clear: Wellstone was one of the most -- and one of the few -- beloved figures in American public life.

Paul Wellstone was the heart of American liberalism -- in part because almost everything he undertook entailed some real risk, and correspondingly, some real courage. In this sense, he made himself the beneficiary of his difficulties. Within the small band of outstanding liberals on Capitol Hill, most everyone hails from a heavily Democratic district or state. A Ted Kennedy can speak for the national liberal community without having to justify his every move in Massachusetts; a Henry Waxman can go after the Bush Administration with the zeal of a hungry D.A. without having to worry about the wavering allegiance of Santa Monicans.

Minnesota, however, may once have been a legendarily liberal state, but is no longer. Today, even winning Democrats don't pull down more than half of the vote. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996 with 51 percent support; Al Gore in 2000 with 48 percent; first-term Senator Mark Dayton was elected in 2000 with 49 percent. In his 1990 and '96 victories, Wellstone came in with 50 percent each time.

So Wellstone's liberalism was distinctive, in the first instance, because he had to take more risks than his liberal colleagues. But it was distinctive, too, because his liberalism had a prophetic aspect as well, or rather, two prophetic aspects. The first was his willingness to condemn the works of a mean time, to be the one senator to vote against even the most watered-down version of the latest laissez-faire panacea or display of social cruelty. The second was his willingness to go out in front of his colleagues by a year or two, or 10. He was the one senator to go to Seattle in 1999, expressing an opposition to corporate free trade that has spread to much of the Senate Democratic caucus in the years since. He was the only senator on the National Mall for a gay-and-lesbian rights demonstration in 1993, championing domestic partnership and gay-adoption legislation that many Democratic officials have since embraced. He was prematurely anti-Enron, thundering against skyrocketing CEO salaries and plummeting worker rights in the days before the corporate scandals once again made populism popular with pols.

It may have been Paul's Jewishness that nudged him toward the prophetic tradition; when he quoted scripture, by the several accounts I've seen, it was usually the prophets. (By me, he just quoted Yiddish proverbs.) Comfortable in both his Jewishness and his left-universalism, Wellstone was also a longtime supporter of a two-state solution in the Middle East -- a tribune for many among the considerable number of American Jews who aren't affiliated with the establishment American-Jewish organizations.

Wellstone's particular form of '60s campus radicalism also made him comfortable with a more oppositional politics than his congressional colleagues could generally settle into. What Wellstone grasped was that by the time he took office, at the start of 1991, the country's politics had moved so far to the right that flat-out opposition was often a moral and practical necessity. Happily, Wellstone's radicalism was always one that celebrated America's ideals and tried to hold the nation to them; he was, after all, a son of immigrants who came to the states escaping Soviet oppression.

On the last day I covered Wellstone on the campaign trail, I caught up with him at a fundraiser he'd sandwiched in between a Native American tribal council at the far northern end of the state and a private meeting of members of the Twin Cities' Indian and Pakistani communities. (!) The fundraiser, drawing chiefly from the Twin Cities' gay and lesbian communities, was hardly the typical closed-door event that candidates prefer when money is raised. It actually took place in a downtown Minneapolis park, where hundreds of Minnesotans of all known sexual persuasions had gathered to help a candidate who'd helped them when no other national political figure yet had the gumption to. "It's an honor to be part of so many struggles," the organizer-turned-senator told them.

Was there another American politician of comparable stature who'd say that? Who'd think that?

So they flocked to him -- gays, lesbians, union members, hard-scrabble farmers, environmentalists, peace activists, Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Scandinavians, Lutherans, seniors, students, students and students . . . The volunteers were swamping this campaign from the start. On an August weekday morning, Wellstone's state headquarters in St. Paul had more people bustling purposefully around than you'd find in a normal senate candidate's headquarters on an October weekend. By early October, the campaign had a coordinator on every dorm floor at the University of Minnesota and the state's next two largest college campuses. Campaign organizers were confidently predicting well over 10,000 volunteers getting out the vote on election day, not counting the thousands of union activists turning out union members in their own parallel GOTV campaign. Unions and environmental groups were sending operatives to the swing states all around the country, of course, but more were going into Minnesota than anywhere else, for the simple reason that qualitatively, one Wellstone was worth several of his Democratic colleagues. Students were pouring over the border from Wisconsin. A number of my own acquaintances were flying in on their own dimes to help out in the closing weeks; on the Friday Wellstone was killed, I lunched with a friend whose wife was to go up there the following day.

Besides the tragedy of Paul's death, there's the bitch. And the bitch is that Wellstone was going to win big. Despite the fact that the White House had targeted him, above all other Democrats, for defeat; despite the fact that he was trumpeting his opposition to the war and to the Bush tax cuts in a state where Democrats didn't pull down more than half the vote, he was going to win big. He had opened a small lead over his Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, during the early summer, as the nation's attention turned to the corporate scandals Wellstone had been warning of for years. When the White House began pushing for war in early September, he had fallen behind, but then, when he cast his vote against the war -- the only Democratic member facing a close race in either house to break with the president -- he'd surged into the lead. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll released on the Monday of the week he died had him up 47 percent to 41 percent. And that didn't register the bounce Wellstone would have gotten from his ground campaign, on which he'd lavished an unheard-of 30 percent of his campaign treasury, and which was designed to bring thousands of unregistered voters to the polls in this election-day-registration state.

For whatever infinitesimal consolation it may offer, Wellstone could feel the victory coming. It would have been a double vindication -- for the politics of conscience, of forthright liberalism; and for the politics of people, of investing money in the ostensibly thankless task of mobilizing the occasional voters. He was "determined to show" his Democratic colleagues, Wellstone told me, that "this is one way to win."

But then, Wellstone's entire campaign was a reproach to his Democratic colleagues. So, for that matter, was Wellstone's entire career.

The sad fact is that Wellstone wasn't isolated from his colleagues only in those instances when he took unpopular positions. He often waged lonely battles for positions that were quite popular, that could have given the Democrats a wedge issue -- but that were opposed by the business interests into which his Democratic colleagues were mortally in hock.

When I was with him in August, he talked to me at length about the bankruptcy bill that Majority Leader Tom Daschle wanted to bring to floor for ratification when the Senate reconvened after Labor Day. Promoted by credit card companies (such as Citigroup, a major employer in Daschle's South Dakota), the bill is designed to make it much harder for working- and middle-class Americans to discharge debt, though it creates some cozy loopholes for wealthy Americans facing the same dilemmas. (The bill was later stymied in the House by an ancillary dispute over abortion.)

"We need to be standing up for the ordinary citizens, not the banks," Wellstone said in weary exasperation. "I've told the leadership this again and again, they shouldn't bring the bill to the floor. If they do -- we'll be on a real compressed schedule -- I can hold it up for several days, maybe a week. I can jiu-jitsu it," said the onetime college wrestler, envisioning the amendments and filibusters and procedural votes he could force to block its passage. "I'm sure I can take up four days blocking this bill, which may be more time than they have. And" -- this was the only obeisance to being a team player, taking the onus of failure off the leadership -- "they can blame it all on me."

He'd fought this kind of fight before. In 2000, in odd-couple partnership with Jesse Helms, he'd battled to condition China's entry into the World Trade Organization on its ceasing to use forced labor. But business prevailed. Early this summer, he joined Carl Levin and other Senate liberals arguing for a more expansive corporate clean-up program than the Sarbanes bill. Wellstone and Co. wanted a stricter separation of auditing from consulting, more oversight of the accounting profession, and an end to the immense and unacknowledged stock options that top executives could claim. But Daschle demurred; the Silicon Valley CEO's who consider mega stock options their birthright are among the Democrats' largest funders.

The result is plain to see in the polls: The Democrats have failed to draw real distinctions between themselves and the Republicans. On the issue of corporate oversight, the two parties are actually tied in the public's esteem. This week, Democratic strategists have actually complained they've been having trouble getting their message out due to the distraction of the D.C. sniper. But it takes a stunningly unresounding message to be drowned out by a couple of gunmen, even granted the media's echo chamber. The fact is, the Democrats have chosen not to campaign in full opposition to the most reactionary administration in memory. For fear of alienating swing voters and for fear of alienating their own monied interests, they have utterly neglected to mobilize their base in a mid-term election where turning out the base is the sine qua non of victory.

And in Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, risking everything on a campaign of principle, was about to turn out the base and win the swing voters too. He was about to demonstrate that both populism and conscience can pull in votes; hard to say which of the two is the more missing from the world of Congressional Democrats.

Daschle, on hearing of Wellstone's death, called him "the soul of the Senate." And what does that make the Senate now that Paul Wellstone is dead?

If the Democrats come up short next week, it will not be for lack of money. They are better funded than any Democratic campaigns in history; indeed, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised every bit as much as its Republican counterparts, even if the pro-GOP "independent" campaigns of the pharmaceutical industry are tilting the air wars towards the Republicans. The problem is that, with all the megaphone in the world, the Democrats still have no message. Save only their commitment to preserve Social Security, they have declined to draw clear lines to distinguish themselves from the Republicans. They have nothing to say, and, as Lear pointed out to Cordelia, nothing will come of nothing.

But Minnesota stands secure. Wellstone was going to win it; now Walter Mondale is going to win it. What's sobering to realize is that Mondale was not just the only instantly credible name that the Democrats needed at this late date, but the only potential candidate with politics even close to Wellstone's. And Mondale, whatever his considerable virtues, is no down-the-line progressive, much less a legislator in the prophetic tradition, eager to grapple with the very premises of the age.

Our politics -- liberal politics, American politics -- suffered a huge loss in that Minnesota forest last Friday. The shlumpy, funny, courageous mensch who died with his wife and daughter and friends in that plane fought harder for our values than any other figure on the political stage, and by so doing inspired thousands of others to take up that fight themselves. Now the reel is running backward; the flesh has become word again. To the thousands of progressives he prodded and roused and inspired falls the challenge of animating it yet again.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

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