The Liberalest Senator

by John J. Miller on November 9, 2009

in Politics

  • Sumo

November 11, 2002

Can the GOP send Paul Wellstone back to the faculty lounge?


“Taxes were raised on just about everybody in order to get this country going again.” That’s Democratic senator Paul Wellstone explaining the causes of the late prosperity. Specifically, he says, it was his brave support of Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget, which passed the Senate by a single vote. Enjoy those bygone days of wild-bull markets and near-full employment? Send a belated thank-you note to the tax-hiking senior senator from Minnesota.

Wellstone’s strange remark came on October 15 at a debate in Moorhead, where he squared off against his Republican opponent, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. Most people don’t believe tax hikes pave the way for economic growth, of course, but Wellstone’s claim could hardly qualify as a gaffe — he’s been saying this sort of thing on the campaign trail all along, and he really means it. The question is whether voters will buy his logic: Wellstone is caught in one of this fall’s tightest elections, and conservatives would love to see Coleman defeat him.

That’s because the 58-year-old Wellstone is the most liberal member of the Senate — a title that has him beating out the likes of Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy. He inhabits a world in which health-care coverage is never complete enough, the minimum wage never high enough, “the rich” never taxed enough, and government never big enough.

At just under 5-and-a-half feet tall, Wellstone is a short man, but high on principle. Probably no other member of the Senate has been on the losing side of more 99-1 or 98-2 votes. None has voted more consistently against the Bush administration, according to Congressional Quarterly. Wellstone aspires to be a Barry Goldwater of the Left; the title of his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal, is a deliberate echo of the conservative hero’s own classic. He even has presidential ambitions — or at least he once did. Before the 2000 election, Wellstone was the clear favorite of his party’s “progressive” wing — i.e., anti-New Democrats who swear by The Nation. Yet he bowed out, citing a bad back, and stumped for Bill Bradley. Al Gore was simply too mainstream.

Paul Wellstone may sit at the far end of the political spectrum, yet it is difficult to dislike him on a personal level — even right-wingers must admit that he would probably make a good neighbor. Smiles and laughs come easily to him. His personal life, in fact, seems quite conservative: He married young, had a few kids, and remains married to his wife, after 39 years. He can be feisty, but he’s rarely rude; there’s still something of the college professor about him, acquired over the 21 years he spent teaching political science at Carleton College. When many Democrats talk about, say, extending unemployment benefits, their fists pound podiums, their ears billow smoke, and their faces turn red with rage. Not Wellstone. He speaks in measured tones, as if believing reasonable people will agree with him if they just listen long enough.

Which isn’t to say he’d be persuasive if he could lecture on a topic for a whole semester. “All politics is personal,” said Wellstone at a recent press conference. Indeed, he wants the government involved in everything. Consider this passage from his book, in a section on pre-K education: “Our national goal must be to ensure that every child, by kindergarten, knows the alphabet; colors, shapes, and sizes; how to spell his or her name; and has been read to widely. . . . This will require well-paid professional teachers, assisted by skillful and well-paid teaching assistants.”

It will? Most moms and dads don’t have such an excruciatingly hard time teaching their toddlers about big blue squares and little yellow circles. But then this proposal isn’t really about what children must learn; it’s about increasing the size and power of the National Education Association. Wellstone may be a man of principle, but his are the principles of labor unions, feminists, and greens.

Wellstone would still be hanging out in faculty lounges if he hadn’t succeeded at his true calling — politics — in 1990. That year, he ran against the incumbent Republican senator, Rudy Boschwitz. At first, Wellstone seemed a sacrificial lamb, but he ran a scrappy and clever campaign, touring the state on a bus and spending his meager funds well. He won by a whisker in what must be considered one of the great Senate-election upsets of the last quarter century.

An important factor in Wellstone’s surprise victory was his pledge to serve no more than two terms. Those were the days when term limits were trendy, and Wellstone’s commitment almost certainly tipped a few crucial, late-deciding voters his way. It may even have made the difference in his race. By running for re-election this year, however, he formally breaks his word. He insists that keeping his promise of a dozen years ago is less important than keeping Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader.

Wellstone made an early mark in Washington. Shortly after his election, he said of his colleague Jesse Helms, “I have detested him since I was 19.” At his initial meeting with the first President Bush, just before the Gulf War, he pestered the commander-in-chief with anti-war rhetoric — prompting Bush to ask, semi-famously, “Who is this chickensh**?” Not long after, Wellstone held a weepy press conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in an ill-advised attempt to turn a sobering national emblem into a crass political symbol. On the Hill, he was seen as undisciplined; he had trouble keeping staff.

These were rookie mistakes, however, and Wellstone has since corrected many of them. He remains an unreconstructed liberal, and the Left looks to him not just for steady support, but for actual leadership. One of his specialties is to channel federal dollars away from defense spending and toward assistance for veterans — a clever move that denies cash to the Pentagon but draws praise from flag-waving groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which endorsed Wellstone on October 7.

The GOP’s Norm Coleman is an attractive alternative — and also the answer to a trivia question: Who would be governor of Minnesota today if it hadn’t been for the freak appearance of Jesse Ventura? Four years ago, Coleman lost that race by a slim margin. He might have tried for the office again this year, but for the intervention of the White House. President Bush urged him to take on Wellstone, and the national party pulled strings to clear the primary field for him.

Coleman looks like the actor Willem Dafoe. His Brooklyn accent stands out against the Scandinavian inflections heard throughout the state. He’s most at home in a business suit — “My agenda as mayor was the agenda of the Chamber of Commerce,” he says — but he’ll have to rack up healthy margins in the plaid-flannel reaches of rural Minnesota if he’s to prevail.

Conservatives have viewed Coleman with some suspicion — six years ago, he actually endorsed Wellstone for re-election. He was still a Democrat then, albeit a right-leaning one who was growing alienated from his party. The trouble began shortly after his first mayoral victory, in 1993, when he got snared in a bitter contract dispute with a municipal union. His support for a school-choice pilot project in St. Paul made waves as well, though the program never became a reality. He also refused to issue a gay-pride proclamation (“It’s not the job of government”) and found himself isolated because of his views on abortion (“Being pro-life in the Democratic party is akin to having leprosy”).

The last straw was Wellstone’s opposition to welfare reform. “It’s what finally convinced me to switch parties,” he says. Today, Coleman runs on a record that makes it sound as if he has been in the GOP from the beginning. He reminds audiences constantly about how he balanced budgets and didn’t raise taxes for eight years as mayor. He’s for military action against Iraq, the “personalization” of Social Security for young people (he rejects the term “privatization”), free trade with just about everybody (including Cuba), gun and gaming rights (“One of the biggest differences between me and my opponent is that I’ve got a fishing license”), snowmobiles in national parks (no small thing in a state that’s frozen half the year), and making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Coleman moderates a few positions, too. He says his favorite Supreme Court Justice is Sandra Day O’Connor. He’s against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He would not have voted to remove Bill Clinton from office had he been a senator in 1999. Yet these seem like minor departures from a set of standard positions that would make him a reliable friend of conservatives in the Senate.

The race is tight, and the polls have shown some big swings: In September, a survey had Coleman leading Wellstone, 47 percent to 41 percent; in October, the same one had Wellstone ahead, 46 percent to 37 percent. It appears that Wellstone’s vote against war authorization may have provided a boost. Whatever the reason, this year’s most liberal member of the Senate and next year’s most liberal member of the Senate will be the same person — unless Norm Coleman convinces Minnesota voters that it won’t take a tax hike to get the country going again.

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