Is He Nuts?

Turncoat. Chickenshit. Radical. Minnesota's senior senator has been called a lot of things. But president?

In the past Wellstone has been careful not to attack a president with whom he shares, at least, a party affiliation. But as he gears up to challenge Clinton's hand-picked successor, his criticism has become more blunt. "Where to start?" he says with an exasperated chuckle. "When President Clinton was elected and Democrats had a majority in the House and the Senate, I thought, given what he was saying in his campaign, this was going to be an opportunity to finally pass universal health-care coverage legislation, to reorder our priorities, have less money spent on the Pentagon and more money spent on children and education.

"It seems hard to believe, doesn't it? Health care, education, jobs, reform, environment--I thought it was going to be a decade of real progressive change. That clearly did not happen."

But if the Bill Clinton of the 1992 campaign trail is no more, the Wellstone of 1998 is also different from the Wellstone of 1990. The senator-elect, who in 1990 vehemently opposed Desert Storm, supported the December bombing of Iraq. That stance outraged some of Wellstone's most loyal supporters and caused peace-and-justice activists to protest at his office.

"I hate to be this way," Wellstone offers in response, "but I don't know that anybody there knows me so well to know what my position would have been years ago." He says that in 1991, he believed the U.S. to be acting too hastily. Not anymore: "As uncomfortable as I am about bombing and the fact that there are going to be innocent people that are going to die, which I hate, I didn't think there was any other choice after seven to eight years of trying to get compliance. I thought it was the only thing that can be done."

The Wellstone of today also voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex unions. In the months between Wellstone's first public support for the bill and his vote for it he met and talked with many gay and lesbian supporters who were infuriated by his position. Did he vote for the Act, and support this year's bombing, with an eye toward a presidential bid? He insists the answer is "absolutely not."

Wellstone does admit that being a U.S. senator has changed him. He says that when he was teaching and organizing, he was mostly surrounded by people who agreed with him; that hasn't been the case in the Senate. "I've now been in many, many places and situations where I meet and have visited with people who see things very differently," he says. "And I've learned a lot."



Presidential hopefuls make as many pilgrimages as they can afford to Iowa and New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state. But in 1992, recall that Bill Clinton won neither. Iowa Democrats went for native son Senator Tom Harkin, who got little opposition on his home turf, while Clinton came in second to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire. At one point, conventional wisdom held that Clinton was politically dead in the wake of disclosures about Gennifer Flowers and his evasion of military service. Of course, that was before the pundits realized that "Slick Willie" had more political lives than Marion Barry.

But there's a new twist to presidential politics: California has moved its primary up to the earliest allowable date, March 7, the same day as the New York primary, and one week before the Super Tuesday primaries in the South. New Hampshire will still be first, but after that the dominoes will fall quickly. Most observers agree that this front-loading of the primary system favors moneyed candidates, and will vastly compress the time it takes to anoint a nominee. An underdog could get clobbered early.

The current perception among Washington politics-watchers is that Wellstone is a long shot, but that because he'll offer a striking contrast with other candidates the Minnesotan could emerge as a key challenger to Gore. Still, says Ron Faucheux, editor of the D.C.-based magazine Campaigns and Elections, "People in Washington do not take him seriously as a presidential candidate. He's not considered a serious threat; he's not even a considered a serious underdog. I think there's a lot of people here who do not see him as a presidential-type figure. He's seen more as a gadfly type."

That said, Faucheux believes the political establishment underestimates Wellstone's ability to do well in some primaries. His presence in the running, Faucheux reasons, "would give true-blue liberals around the country a chance to voice their protest against the Democratic Party moving too far to the center. And Wellstone could be the vehicle for that protest." The result, he says, could be that Wellstone garners "enough votes for people to take notice" (like, say, Jackson or former California governor and 1992 presidential gadfly Jerry Brown) and run second or third in the Democratic field. That could mean increased national visibility for the senator and his platform--but not electoral victory.

Says Brookings's Dionne: "I have always had the impression that if this campaign is about anything, it's about organizing and activating progressive wings of the party that have been either asleep or alienated. [Wellstone's] heart has always been with movement politics, and I could imagine that part of what he has in mind is to bring together elements of the left or the progressive side of which he could be a spokesman. If it works, it would be something like Pat Robertson's campaign was for the Christian conservatives."

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