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The Genuine Article

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

“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 cheered 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, for 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!” At the same time, Sheila, who seemed 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 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 (the only Democrat with a close race in either house to vote against the president). He was the pol so appalled at the standards of the age that he voted against even the most watered-down version of the latest laissez-faire panacea or display of social cruelty. 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.

On the last day I covered Wellstone on the campaign trail, I caught up with him for a fund-raiser 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 fund-raiser, 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, who’d joined them on the National Mall in 1993 to call for domestic-partner legislation and gay adoption rights. “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, hardscrabble farmers, environmentalists, peace activists, Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Scandinavians, Lutherans, seniors, students, students and students . . . The volunteers swamped 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 any other 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 get-out-the-vote 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, 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.

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 anything, my other weeks on the campaign trail this fall have underscored how exceptional Wellstone and his campaign truly were. And none more so than my week in Texas, the Republican fatherland, where this year the Democrats actually believed they could mobilize enough voters to elect a Democratic governor and senator in W.’s home state. There, the Democrats assembled an ethnic “dream team” designed to mobilize enough nonwhite voters to dethrone the Republicans. The dream teamers are (white) lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, (African-American) U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk (until recently the mayor of Dallas) running for the seat that Phil Gramm is vacating, and (Latino) gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, an oil man and banker with enough money to register and bring to the polls however many Latinos are required to push the state into the Democratic column.

Only things haven’t quite worked out as planned. Sanchez did indeed plunge a fortune into the technology of voter mobilization. People can’t stop talking about the PalmPilots he purchased by the hundreds for his precinct walkers, so that voter preferences can be noted and processed immediately. A veteran political consultant in Houston swears that the Sanchez campaign has leased every van in town.

But visits to campaign headquarters and talks with political hands in the most Latino big cities in the state — San Antonio and El Paso — suggest that Sanchez isn’t getting much bang for his buck. Part of the problem is Sanchez himself, a candidate whose stump speeches suggest nothing so much as a banker reading aloud from a quarterly report. Part of the problem is his message, which ignores a range of working-class issues — raising the minimum wage, for instance — that could awaken his Latino working-class base, particularly in the poverty-stricken Rio Grande Valley. An avid supporter of George W. Bush when he was governor, and not known for favoring any notably progressive policies, Sanchez is falling woefully short of the kind of Latino breakthrough candidate who could transform Texas politics. College students are nowhere to be found in his campaign offices, and longtime liberal and Latino activists are quietly scornful of their gubernatorial standard-bearer. “We’ve been in the trenches for 40 years for this?” asks one. “For a guy who’s no better than a Republican?”

Finally, part of the Sanchez problem is a flood of negative commercials, a number of them his own, which are turning potential voters away from politics. “We’re not finding a lot of activity in the neighborhoods,” says Christine Stephens, lead Texas organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, which sponsors many of the state’s leading community-organizing and living-wage campaigns. “The negative ads have really taken a toll on people’s wanting to vote.” Indeed, with millions of dollars sunk into a capital-intensive field campaign to increase voter turnout, and millions more sunk into a negative media campaign that can only depress voter turnout, the Sanchez campaign has become a marvel of self-negation. Despite all the Sanchez millions, the final voter-registration numbers show a net increase of just 200,000 new voters this year — much less than half the total needed if Sanchez and Kirk are to win.

The Sanchez campaign is only an extreme example of the vast futility that seems to cling to so many of this year’s Democratic campaigns as the election draws near. 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 counterpart, even if the pro-GOP “independent” campaigns of the pharmaceutical industry are tilting the air wars toward the Republicans. The problem is that, with all the megaphones 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 points out to Cordelia, nothing will come of nothing.

“Nothing,” of course, is not an electoral outcome; the Republican nullity who lives in the White House has brought us not nothing, but one damned thing after another. As things now stand, I doubt he’ll pick up the Senate. The Democrats may lose Missouri, and have an outside shot of losing South Dakota, but they stand to pick up Arkansas and maybe New Hampshire, with an outside shot at carrying Colorado (the key there being the new Latino voters). The House strikes me as imponderable; betting either with or against the House seems rash.

And Minnesota? 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 could find 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 Wellstone mode, 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.


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