By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Besides the tragedy of Paul’s death, and those of Sheila and Marcia and the others on that plane, 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 opponent, 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, 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 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.
In August, he talked to me at length about the bankruptcy bill that Majority Leader Tom Daschle wanted to bring to the floor for ratification when the Senate re-convened after Labor Day. Promoted by credit-card companies (such as Citigroup, which is 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 jujitsu 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 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 Michigan’s Carl Levin and other Senate liberals arguing for a more expansive corporate cleanup program than a bill by Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.). 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 CEOs 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’re 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 moneyed interests, they have utterly neglected to mobilize their base in a midterm 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.