Playing to Win

Coleman, Wellstone, and the politics of purity

 The local dailies recently reported that Bill Cooper, ex-chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, has formed a political committee to test the ideological purity of conservative candidates. It's no secret that the group, cleverly dubbed the Conservative Council, was put together in part to take shots at Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's House majority leader and former U.S. Senate hopeful turned Republican candidate for governor--a man who, in the view of Cooper and other conservatives, could well be a "Republicrat" (read: too moderate).

For more than a year now, Cooper has been working behind the scenes to raise the profile of gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan, a boyish, 40-year-old, flag-waving entrepreneur from Orono who believes God, guns, and tax cuts can save the state.

Conspicuously absent from Cooper's list of traitors--and from the ensuing media coverage, which focused on Republicans weary of Cooper's ideological grandstanding--was any mention of former St. Paul mayor and newly minted U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman. This omission is especially curious, because just a few years ago Coleman was Cooper's dream candidate: a DFLer turned pro-life, anti-gay Republican who could woo moneyed special-interest groups without scaring off the electorate. There was even talk of a presidential run. Then Coleman made a move back toward the middle (rhetorically, anyway). After Coleman lost a gubernatorial shocker to Jesse Ventura, Cooper kicked him in his brand-new dental work, telling the press, "He's dead and he doesn't know it."

Handicappers on both sides of the aisle have different theories as to why Coleman was spared the Conservative Council's litmus test. There's also some disagreement over whether he'd pass. In my view, all of this inside baseball is...well, too inside. The bottom line is that Cooper and his confreres neither like nor trust Coleman. But you know what? They're going to vote for him anyway. They'll even help outspend his embattled opponent, incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone. And you know why? Because they're willing to trade subtle differences in principle for political gain. It's the conservative way.

And in case you haven't noticed, it's working. If the Republicans pick up just one Senate seat in this fall's elections, the balance of power in Washington shifts, and President Bush will have an even easier time pushing through his pro-business, anti-environment, pro-law-and- order, and anti-civil-liberties agenda.

That's why earlier this year Vice President Dick Cheney personally called Tim Pawlenty and persuaded him to back out of the U.S. Senate race, leaving Coleman as the sole Republican candidate. The polls indicate that Coleman, celebrated for bringing "the pride" back to St. Paul, can attract swing voters both in the metro and outstate. What's more, he has proven time and again that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get a seat at the table. And once he does, he'll reward whoever got him there (just ask the business people who make up St. Paul's Capital City Partnership). As Wellstone's strategists are wisely starting to point out, Coleman is Bush's handpicked candidate: If he wins, he'll be a rubber stamp. And litmus test or no litmus test, that should please even the staunchest conservatives, who'll finally have a wartime president with a domestic mandate to match.

So what are the state's lefties doing? Those folks who got out the vote for Wellstone last time around and need to energize their base to prevail in the fall? Why, the same thing they did during the 2000 presidential election: They're letting subtle differences get in the way of political gain. It's the liberal way. And in case you haven't noticed, it isn't working.

Wellstone should take heat (and has) for backing out on his promise to go back to teaching at Carleton College after serving two terms. Politically, it was an unnecessary promise. And if not wholly disingenuous, his change of heart was poorly handled. His decision to vote for the U.S. Patriot Act was likewise worthy of condemnation--both philosophically and strategically. But are Democrats honestly going to vote for Norm Coleman or abstain from voting altogether (essentially the same thing) because one of the nation's most liberal lawmakers isn't batting a thousand? If you listen to the buzz and read the dead-even polls, it seems the answer is yes.

Already, the same folks who tried to convince me two years ago that there was absolutely no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush are starting to look wistfully skyward and talk about protest votes, third-party movements, and doing something "to really make a difference." Never mind that those same people have been sending around e-mail petitions to stop Attorney General John Ashcroft's assault on the Bill of Rights and wondering out loud, hands in their pockets, whether Bush's lazy rhetoric might spark a world war. Wellstone needs to be held accountable, they say. He let us down. And we liberals need to weed out the weak.

Here's a thought: Maybe after he gets Brian Sullivan elected governor, Bill Cooper can help the liberals put together a litmus test.

 

All the Rage appears every other week. E-mail the author at dschimke@citypages.com.

 
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