Looking to Paul Wellstone's Legacy

Writing just hours before the US election, one columnist for the London-based Guardian commented that "a respectable performance by Republicans tonight -- maintaining, say, their narrow hold over the House of Representatives even when the economy is sputtering -- would be seen as an enormous vindication of a man who won fewer votes in the 2000 election than his Democratic opponent and was only installed in the White House thanks to five members of the US Supreme Court. From fending off questions about the legitimacy of his presidency, Bush would have become one of only three presidents not to lose House seats in a midterm election."

That Bush and the Republicans were able to surpass even these goals loudly proclaims not only Republican success but a Democratic debacle. The tragic death of Paul Wellstone late last month might almost serve as a metaphor for the state of the party. Wellstone often described himself as representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. That wing is moribund. Without its inspiration, the party will be fortunate to survive. Some commentators attribute the Democrats' defeat to "wag the dog": The President distracted the electorate with war talk. Yet unlike the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Americans are more reluctant than the president to plunge into war.

An election focused on economics couldn't hurt Republicans when their Democratic opponents could hardly be viewed as an alternative. In a few states -- including Maine -- individual Democrats did offer decidedly more progressive perspectives on taxes, prescription drugs, and corporate accountability. But the ability of some genuinely progressive Democrats to score with their messages is limited by the skill of the Republican response and by the confusion and timidity of their own party leaders.

Republicans have become adept at portraying themselves as opponents of corporate fraud, high prescription drug prices and environmental pollution. Though the specifics of their programs are very different, I am impressed by how many Republicans around the country come off as flaming liberals in their commercials. If all I knew about George Pataki were his political ads, I would think he was a Green social democrat.

In an age driven by sound bites, candidates have few opportunities to establish differences from their opponents.Their cause is better served when national parties articulate the stakes. Democrats enjoyed control of the US Senate. Though they could not enact any legislation, leaders and committee chairs could have used the last year to establish an alternative agenda. Yet to do so would entail breaks with the Clinton past.

Today's sagging economy is one legacy of bipartisan ineptitude. The collapse of the tech-driven stock market bubble was foreseen -- not only by some left economists but even by such establishment figures as Lawrence Lindsay. But a Lindsay suggestion that the Fed impose tougher margin requirements to dampen stock market speculation was rejected by Alan Greenspan (an icon of both parties) and never accepted by the Clinton administration. That administration embraced a broad package of financial deregulation that did as much to encourage excesses on Wall Street as any of the Bush administration's sins of omission or commission.

After Bush's election, national Democrats continued to squander their opportunities. Nation columnist William Greider comments: "Democrats like to wail about Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut but forget that Daschle's opening offer was $900 billion. He rushed through the bailout for airlines (his wife was a lead lobbyist) and left out the workers. The measure expanding unemployment benefits was hailed as a great Democratic victory, but the bill included $43 billion in new business tax breaks, compared with $8.5 billion for the millions of jobless." D.C. Democrats have no public identity as the party that would provide relief for victims of trade policy or offer fiscal assistance to struggling state governments.

Democratic leaders argue that the day has passed for pro-active government, especially more spending. Yet historically in tough times, progressive Democrats, both prodded by and sometimes providing leadership for grass roots groups, have shown that government can work for ordinary citizens.

Broad based, publicly funded initiatives, such as Social Security, the GI bill and Medicare, soon became staples of American life. They achieved their popularity because they were efficient, comprehensive and laid a solid foundation for private sector growth.

Today, a progressive Democratic leadership would point out that Republican proposals for means-tested prescription drug programs funnelled through the private sector will be both inefficient and intrusive. Means testing always involves continual snooping into the private lives of potential recipients. Corporate providers of health care services too often "compete" by devising elaborate ways to focus enrollment on the healthy. When competition takes that form, even conservative governments eventually must devise complicated regulations.

Poverty and disease, as Wellstone so eloquently argued on many occasions, are fought in the least intrusive and most effective ways by establishing a sound safety net of fair wages and education and health care for all. Paul Wellstone's greatness lay in his willingness to be out front on such issues as jobs and fair wages for all, defense of family farms, and universal healthcare even when these concerns were scorned by elite opinion.

I recently discussed Wellstone's academic background with Peter Bachrach, a distinguished Temple University political theorist now retired to Southwest Harbor. Peter's ground breaking work in the '60s taught my generation about the subtle ways institutional and cultural forces exclude some voices even in formally democratic societies.

When Wellstone came up for tenure at Carleton College, the administration tried to deny him promotion. But widespread campus opposition forced administrators to initiate an outside evaluation of the professor by a distinguished visiting team (including Peter). That team's report, endorsing his teaching and scholarship, forced the administration to relent. Peter commented that Wellstone's sin was to encourage students to do broad, open-ended interviews with impoverished local farmers about their grievances and political goals. The administration feared the antagonism and controversy such interviews might stir up.

Leadership in Washington today consists of focus groups and carefully orchestrated polls. It is primarily about packaging party funders' goals and concerns. It is not about forcefully articulating ends and objectives that will engage and serve the broad middle and working class.

The anguished response to Wellstone's death from many grassroots organizations from Maine to California stands in contrast to an election where most Americans found little reason even to vote. There is a lesson for the opposition party -- if it ever hopes to move beyond irrelevance.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

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