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Honoring Paul Wellstone
Tim Francis-Wright

Paul Wellstone represented the hope that progressive politicians could work within the Democratic party without sacrificing their key political principles. If the Democratic politicians are serious about Paul Wellstone's legacy, they should emulate how he let his principles guide how he voted and how he ran for election.

Wellstone stuck to his principles even as his colleagues abandoned them. Two of his most paradigmatic stands came in the midst of his campaigns for reelection in 1996 and 2002. In 1996, he joined 23 other senators in voting against the welfare reform bill that Bill Clinton signed. In 2002, he joined 22 other senators against authorizing the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. In this case, he was the only Democrat in a competitive race for re-election to vote against the use of force.

Conventional wisdom declared that Wellstone was dead wrong to stick to his principles on these two votes, that he should have voted with moderates in the Senate, that he should have catered to more conservative voters and not to his liberal base. This sort of thinking drove many liberal Democrats in Congress in 1996 to vote for welfare reform and in 2002 to vote for war on Iraq. Political science buttresses this conventional wisdom: the "median voter theorem" proves that the position of the most moderate voter in a set of voters is the only equilibrium position, if voters line up along a single dimension and have preferences that are well-behaved.

Wellstone, however, knew that the median voter theorem did not work in practice. First, he knew that politics, even American politics, represents a host of issues, some independent and some interconnected, that do not map cleanly to one or even two political dimensions. Voting, for example, not to go to war with Iraq might be unpopular in Wisconsin, but many other, independent, issues can be of equal or greater concern to many Wisconsin voters. Second, he knew that politics was a two-way street. Politicians do not solely represent the will of their constituents; they also persuade their constituents to support particular positions. Third, he knew that voters respect and support politicians who act on their beliefs. Wellstone ran for Senate in 1990 as an idealist, and he strove to maintain that idealism in office.

What is striking about the last three decades of American politics is the unification of the Republican party around a set of core, conservative, beliefs, while the Democratic party has foundered without any real counterpart. Without Ronald Reagan's three campaigns for president, the conservative movement might be just a faction within a party divided by geography and ideology. Reagan won handily over Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984, not in spite of his conservative beliefs, but because of them. Some of those beliefs are archaic in retrospect—criticizing the Panama Canal Treaty as a giveaway was important to the Reagan campaign in 1980 but seems ludicrous now. Certainly Americans did not spring forth from their wombs wedded to supply-side economics and massive increases in defense spending: throughout Reagan's two terms in office, Democrats held majorities in the House of Representatives.

Reagan represented the dreams and desires of conservative Republicans, but he also articulated a clear, heartfelt vision for America and the presidency. While Democrats would not want to duplicate his policy decisions, they would do well to emulate his passion and forthrightness. Ronald Reagan did not cater to the median voter: he convinced the median voter that he and his vision were right for the job. Paul Wellstone never won a race in a landslide, the way that Ronald Reagan did in 1984. He did, however, win majorities in 1990 and 1996, in a state that is far from a solidly Democratic state, by being as passionate and forthright as Reagan was.

Wellstone faced this year a particularly tough election fight. George W. Bush personally recruited Republican Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul and a former candidate for governor, to run against Wellstone. The Green Party nominated Ed McGaa to run against Wellstone, in spite of Wellstone's markedly liberal voting records in his two terms in the Senate. Some ostensibly leftist commentators, notably Alexander Cockburn, called for Minnesotans to vote for McGaa because Wellstone had failed to move the Democratic party to the left. Even this criticism, of course, admits that Wellstone was significantly to the left of the leaders of his party. Seeking to unseat him would be counterproductive for anyone on the left who believes that the left can operate in the current political system. Furthermore, I submit that the congressional leaders and presidential candidates of the Democratic party—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt, and Tom Daschle—have been far more responsible than any backbencher for keeping Congressional debate on Republican turf.

Congressional leaders and presidential candidates are the politicians who appeal to voters and constituents on a national scale. Since the Reagan landslide of 1984, previous few of them on the Democratic side have been unafraid to be more liberal than the most liberal of the Republicans in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Republican party has become the party that coddles corporate crooks, cares not a whit about the environment, and considers the Constitution to be an inconvenience.

Wellstone's approach to politics stands in stark contrast to one of his colleagues. John Kerry, after some public deliberation, decided to join his party's leaders and vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Like Wellstone, Kerry ran for reelection this year. Unlike Wellstone, he faced opposition from only two minor-party candidates. Unlike Wellstone, he represents a solidly Democratic state. Most importantly, unlike Wellstone, he harbors ambitions of running for president in 2004, and fears the implications of failing to support the president. Kerry has forgotten how many Congressional Republicans opposed President Clinton's use of force in the Balkans and Iraq in the 1990s, out of personal and political antipathy. He has also, alas, forgotten that he first came to national attention himself as a dissenter: Kerry, a hero in the Vietnam War, was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

John Kerry is hardly to blame for the ills of the Democratic Party. But his political calculations are hardly idiosyncratic. The Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt, are too quick to accommodate President Bush and his Republican allies. Gephardt and Daschle could have led principled objections to the resolution on Iraq. Instead, they acquiesced, forcing Democratic members not only to defy President Bush, but also to defy their party's leaders, in order to vote nay. The Republicans, save a very few outliers, continue to be united behind whatever the White House wants.

Honoring Paul Wellstone by doing what he would do might not keep the Republicans from being united, but it will have two positive effects on the Democratic party. A Democratic majority in either chamber that is united on key issues will force the White House to compromise on those issues. And having Democrats who are unafraid to be left of center, even just before elections, will translate into election wins.

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