United They Sit

Minnesota's senators were supposed to be the type to stand up for social programs, the environment, and civil liberties. So why are critics left and right accusing them of lying down on the job?

To be sure, Wellstone radiated a kind of Minnesota populism that began with 1930s Gov. Floyd B. Olson and included Gov. Harold Stassen and senators Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale. Wellstone himself idolized Hubert Humphrey. But it was clear that he would be different even from those highly respected politicians. Overnight, Wellstone became an icon of Sixties radicalism and idealism, someone who would remain the consummate Washington outsider and stick to his beliefs, come hell or high water. Being inside the Beltway, he insisted, would never change him.

He ruffled feathers upon arriving in Washington by parking the campaign bus in the Senate parking lot, taking up four reserved spaces. He broke tradition at his swearing in by having Mondale accompany him, an invitation traditionally extended to the senior senator from a newcomer's state--in this case, Republican Dave Durenberger. And at his first meet-and-greet at the White House he broke protocol by attacking President George Bush's Persian Gulf policy with a barrage of in-your-face questions.

While some in the political establishment back home rolled their eyes, many of his supporters were galvanized by what they saw as their man's strong individuality. As the country careened toward a war with Iraq over Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Wellstone and his wife Sheila visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where, before a throng of cameras, he made a tearful, impassioned anti-war speech. Veterans groups were outraged, and it solidified some notions around the country that Wellstone was a left-wing wacko. But at the time, Wellstone's office claimed that Minnesotans supported his position two to one.

Twelve years down the road, however, there's a feeling that Wellstone's years in Washington have diluted his resolve. For example, last March he almost single-handedly killed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill by voting to attach several provisions that made it unpassable, if not unconstitutional. The bill aimed to limit campaign-related TV advertising by special-interest groups. Wellstone rallied enough votes to enact even further spending restrictions in a move that was widely viewed as a cynical attempt by Democrats to kill the bill. (Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill; a different version stalled in the House.)

The episode surprised many who remembered Wellstone championing campaign-finance reform back in 1990. But Bill Hillsman, the ad strategist largely credited with getting Wellstone elected then and reelected in 1996, says the senator had a precise strategy when he cast his campaign-finance vote. "He was already running against somebody with a lot of money," Hillsman claims, referring to Wellstone's 2002 reelection bid against Norm Coleman. "[Wellstone] knew that he needs the money, but has to save face. So he gets way out in front of it. He attaches good-sounding amendments to look like he's really tough on campaign-finance reform."

Wellstone's staff denies this allegation, insisting that he was trying to close a major loophole in the bill.

Last month both Wellstone and Dayton voted against President Bush's education bill, even though many on both sides of the aisle thought the package was a boon for public schools. Last week President Bush signed the $26 billion law, providing the opportunity for schools and individual families to seek money for educational programs. The measure proved to be a public-relations victory for the Bush administration: Even die-hard liberal Ted Kennedy embraced it. Wellstone, however, said there wasn't enough money in it.

He and Dayton have been unable to make headway on a farm bill they obviously care about quite deeply. The bill, which would have earmarked $170 billion to subsidize small farms and prevent further growth by corporate "factory farms," stalled in the wake of the terrorist attacks. ("Post 9/11, it was inappropriate for any politician to push an agenda not really related to terrorism," notes Janecek. "[And] the number of people who fit the profile of the liberal family farmer has decreased.")

Has Wellstone strayed from his initial, populist path? "That's an understatement," Hillsman says. "[Wellstone's] in an election cycle again, so he can't afford to stick his neck out."

Possibly most controversial, however, is Wellstone's decision to break his 1990 promise to serve two terms and quit. While perhaps too much has been made of his change of heart, the senator reneged on his promise with the kind of sanctimony not seen from him before--making the claim that he had to run against Coleman to fight against the Bush administration agenda. Even a year ago, this would have seemed like a noble reason for Wellstone to run for a third term. But more recently, say some onetime supporters, it seems disingenuous.

"The only reason he's still in office is that Paul's swing vote is the Perot/Ventura vote," opines Hillsman, referring to a good number of white working-class men just north of the Twin Cities metro area. "They don't agree with him on any issues, but the notion that he was honest and had integrity played to those voters. Their thought is, 'We ought to have one of those sons-of-bitches in office.' Paul Wellstone doesn't have that integrity anymore. It's disintegrated."

With the Senate now controlled by the Democrats by a margin of one vote, the Wellstone-Coleman race figures to be one of the most important Senate races in the country, and one that will not be easily won. It will be very messy and very expensive. Given these stakes, Janecek says, Wellstone can't afford to make himself an easy target. "Coleman is the president's boy, so at the very least Wellstone can say that he supported the president," she says. "Part of the problem with his effectiveness now is that I really believe he's out raising money."

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