Dark Horse

If he runs for president next year, there's little chance Sen. Paul Wellstone will win. But he just might nudge the Democrats slightly to the left.

If left Democrats are to have any hope of taking back their party from the special interests who bought it, and to begin to re-create viable progressive electoral politics, they're going to have to start coagulating--soon--around a presidential candidate for the year 2000. As one veteran strategist of insurgent campaigns puts it, "Al Gore is already running full throttle. He's in hock to Corporate America, so he'll have all the money he needs. But for that reason he's also up to his neck in the fundraising scandals which, unless the Republican primaries regurgitate a reactionary fruit loop, means that he's easy to beat in a general election--especially since by then the Asian financial crisis will have sent the economy reeling.

"Who's out there? [Missouri Rep.] Dick Gephardt is an issues flip-flopper, and as a Washington insider he's compromised in the eyes of many turned-off voters--besides which he's about as exciting as watching paint dry. Jesse Jackson has been bought off by the White House, and in any case he's shopworn now. [Delaware Sen.] Joe Biden doesn't stand for anything--on issues he's about as real as his hair implants. And [Nebraska Sen.] Bob Kerrey believes in Republican, deficit-hawk economics, as does Jay Rockefeller, who doesn't seem to have real fire in the belly to make the race."

That's why the potential candidacy of Minnesota's feisty, populist U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone is increasingly being considered by left Democrats as a possible rallying point. Wellstone became a hero to left liberals when, in 1996, he was the only Democratic senator running for re-election who had the guts to vote against the Clinton administration's welfare abolition bill (although he's not been above casting a few electorally expedient votes he knew to be wrong: he supported both the anti-civil libertarian Clinton anti-terrorism bill and--despite an otherwise flawless record on gay issues--the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act). Wellstone won re-election handily, surviving a heavy GOP TV blitz with an astute combination of attacks on corporate special interests, down-to-earth talks about bread-and-butter issues, and an impressive precinct-level field operation that got out his vote.

Wellstone tried to jump-start his exploratory candidacy last summer by embarking on a "poverty tour"--a conscious imitation of Robert Kennedy's 1967 visits to the nation's poorest regions. Wellstone criss-crossed the country from the Mississippi Delta and the mines of Appalachia to the ghettos of Chicago and New York, but garnered little national media attention. And his visits to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states, sandwiched in between his senatorial duties, were sharply curtailed by a back injury incurred while wrestling, the 53-year-old's favorite sport.

"After eight weeks in rehab," says Wellstone, "I'm really behind." Now recovered, he's about to resume his forays into primary and caucus states, and puts his chances of deciding to run for president at "about 50-50."

"I'm not going to take up people's time," he adds, "unless I think this [effort] can be really significant."

Wellstone's chances of raffling the nomination from Gore and the deep-pockets Clinton apparatus he inherits are, of course, exceedingly slim. But he'd be an articulate left voice who could crack open the hitherto desultory debate about his party's future, and his candidacy has the potential to help launch a new progressive electoral movement. If Wellstone eventually decides to run, the state in which he has the best chance to make the early breakthrough he'll need is Iowa.

Ask the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, Iowa's sharpest political reporter, to assess Wellstone's chances, and he says that "Wellstone has a geographic advantage here: Iowa is no different from rural Minnesota, and candidates from neighboring states always do well here. It's easy for him to get here and campaign, and to bring his supporters in here to help get out his vote in the caucuses."

Wellstone's passionate, populist stump speech also goes down well with Iowa Democrats, says Yepsen. "They really like what they hear. The problem is, they don't really see him as a president."

It's what one East Coast establishment liberal jokingly refers to as Wellstone's "Richard Dreyfuss syndrome. Paul is a great guy who says all the right things, but there's a lack of gravitas in his demeanor that isn't really presidential." When he gets an audience revved up, the enthusiasm of his listeners feeds his own, and by the end of a speech before a "hot" crowd, Wellstone--his arms flailing, his tie askew, the veins in his wrestler's neck bulging--is often literally jumping up and down as his peroration ends in a sweaty near-shriek.

While his occasionally over-the-top oratory might not fit conventional wisdom's definition of what is "presidential," Wellstone's jubilant passion is that of a great organizer; that's how the ex-college professor and longtime activist first won election, and how he survived the massive Republican left-baiting that tried to defeat him two years ago. In his '96 re-election campaign, Wellstone pledged not to run for the Senate again, which means he has nothing to lose. No longer hobbled by the constraints of local electoral calculations, the senator as a presidential candidate would be liberated from the winning-is-everything psychosis of front-runnerdom by the remoteness of eventual victory.

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