News & Features Feedback
New This WeekAround TownMusicFilmArtTheaterNews & FeaturesFood & DrinkAstrology

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend
Gauging a terrible loss (continued)


SO WHAT does this mean? If Wellstone’s political world-view was outdated even by progressive standards, as Teixeira suggests, does that mean his career was nothing more than a curiosity? Was there no significance to his years in the Senate? And did he have nothing to offer the future of the Democratic Party? Absolutely not. Wellstone’s greatest achievement may lie in his having been the first post-postmodern candidate. That is to say, the first candidate to whom voters turned in a very long time because he was ... real.

Boschwitz outspent Wellstone by six-to-one during the 1990 campaign. About a month before the election, Boschwitz had $1.1 million in his war chest, according to a behind-the-scenes piece about the 1990 campaign by the Star Tribune reposted on its Web site after his death. Wellstone’s balance? Just $7.15. Boschwitz, who was the epitome of the blow-dried senator, had all the apparent advantages, including a good foot in height over the five-foot-five-inch Wellstone. (In preparation for their first debate, Wellstone’s advisers had him practice a stiff-arm handshake to keep Boschwitz from sidling up next to him and emphasizing their height disparity.) Yet the upstart Wellstone had two advantages. First, he enjoyed an impressive statewide network of grassroots supporters, formed during his years of advocacy. Second, he was willing to take risks, including the use of unconventional, reality-style television ads that reached voters usually turned off to politics. His marquee spot, "Looking for Rudy," had Wellstone, in Roger and Me–style, trying to meet with his opponent. The ads clicked with voters.

Wellstone’s innovative campaign gave birth to a generation of insurgent electoral efforts. First came Ross Perot’s Reform Party presidential candidacy in 1992. Feingold in Wisconsin ran for the Senate using the exact same playbook as Wellstone. And without Wellstone’s success on the state level, the national Green Party, which shared much of his progressive ideology, might never have tried to run a major presidential candidate in 2000. Nader’s run had much in common with Wellstone’s 1990 campaign: lots of grassroots organizing, little money, and a left-of-center campaign platform. The two campaigns’ similarities even extended to style. Take a look at Wellstone’s green campaign signs — which reinforced his enviro-friendly policies and history as a grassroots activist, and which he used in every campaign. They look remarkably like the signs Nader used in 2000. And then there were Nader’s clever ads, particularly the one that mimicked American Express’s "priceless" ads ("Grilled tenderloin for fundraiser, $1000 a plate; campaign ads filled with half-truths, $10 million; promises to special-interest groups, over $10 billion; finding out the truth, priceless. There are some things money can’t buy"), which were also directed by Hillsman.

To Hillsman, all the copycats suggest a trend. (Wellstone employed a ramshackle green bus in his 1990 campaign, the forerunner to Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s bus tour, John McCain’s "Straight Talk Express," and Reich’s "Reform Express.") "Paul showed us the impossible can be possible in politics," says Hillsman. "I know for sure [that] without Paul, Jesse Ventura would have never been able to run for governor in this state. And Nader would never have been able to run for president in 2000."

As Wellstone battled Coleman during the summer and early fall, there was talk that the senator might be hurt by the country's post–September 11 rightward lurch. As President George W. Bush began to put pressure on the Senate to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq — and Bush wanted Wellstone with him — it looked like everybody in Congress who faced a contested race would vote for the resolution. Not Wellstone. In fact, he was the only senator in a close race to vote against it. And contrary to what all the pundits believed would happen, Wellstone’s poll numbers went up after the vote. His campaign actually gained momentum on the basis of his vote against a new war resolution.

So did Wellstone tap into some new antiwar spirit sweeping Minnesota? Maybe. But it’s not likely. Many observers chalk up Wellstone’s surge to something else: integrity. In voting against the war resolution, he did what he believed to be right. At least in Minnesota, the public appeared to support a candidate who voted his conscience, even if it was for something with which they disagreed. "In politics, there’s one thing you can’t fake," says Hillsman. "That’s authenticity."

ALREADY, THERE is a palpable longing for Wellstone and what he represented. Last Friday night, Senator John Kerry, who earlier in the day had delivered a shaken, emotional tribute to Wellstone, spoke at the John F. Kennedy Library on behalf of the Joyner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. The room was packed with Vietnam veterans, many of them former members of groups such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (as was Kerry) and Vietnam Veterans of America. The sentiment in the room was progressive-left; many present had been active in the effort to end the Vietnam War.

Perhaps because of Wellstone’s death earlier in the day, or perhaps because the crowd included so many friends from his days in the antiwar movement, Kerry — who called Wellstone "an advocate of extraordinary capacity" and convened a moment of silent meditation in his honor — deviated from his prepared remarks and spoke instead on a topic that was looming large in the minds of most present — his vote in favor of the war resolution. "I’m going to do something I didn’t plan to do tonight," said Kerry, noting that "several of you" had raised the issue with him. "I think we ought to be spontaneous tonight.... We ought to just go with the flow." One woman rose when Kerry started to speak and turned her back on him. Another man heckled Kerry as he went through his justification for signing on to the resolution.

If Kerry had done this with local television cameras present, it would have been the ultimate act of political cynicism. After all, what better way — taking on the old antiwar establishment — to show that he had moved to the center? But they weren’t there. In fact, as far as I could tell, I was the only member of the press in the room, and Kerry wasn’t aware of my presence. I had only shown up at the last minute to try to get a quote from him about Wellstone for this story. When Kerry addressed the group, it was clear he was speaking from his heart on an issue he had thought about deeply. As he left the Kennedy Library, a man handed him a book about Vietnam and said, "We need another Wellstone."

The Democratic Party would be wise to oblige. Such a figure isn’t going to emerge from the crop of likely presidential candidates in 2004, who are the party’s current political leaders. Gephardt will represent his economic populism — and that’s about it. Governor Howard Dean of Vermont will carry the banner for health-care reform and small-town plainspokenness. Reverend Al Sharpton will run a Wellstone-like campaign that’s heavy on free media and light on campaign contributions. But he’ll hold little appeal for progressives or even the economically disenfranchised. Gore will reinvent himself, once and for all, as a candidate "for the people, not the powerful" — a far cry from the DLC Gore version who ran for president in 2000. And Kerry, always, will have what he did in the 1960s.

But if no one emerges from the Democratic pack to carry forward both Wellstone’s policies and his innovative, ground-up campaign style, voters will seek it out elsewhere. Without a Wellstone to carry the progressive banner for the Democratic Party, it’s possible that the hemorrhaging of liberal support for the Democratic Party, which began with Clinton’s election in 1992, will continue. Progressives who haven’t already done so will look to the growing Green Party. And the Democrats can’t afford that.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

page 1  page 2 

Click here for the Talking Politics archives
Issue Date: October 31 - November 7, 2002
Back to the News & Features table of contents.
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

home | feedback | about the phoenix | find the phoenix | advertising info | privacy policy | the masthead | work for us

 © 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group