Chickenshit, Interrupted

No one calls Paul Wellstone an outsider any more

"Who is this chickenshit?"

That is what Daddy Bush purportedly asked another lawmaker in December of 1990, after newly elected Sen. Paul Wellstone cornered him at a reception for incoming members to urge a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis. (A few days later, Wellstone further rankled the Right, and many veterans, by staging an anti-war rally near the Vietnam War memorial.) For the progressives who elected Wellstone to fight the power in Washington, it was an auspicious beginning--proof that the political-science professor from Minnesota was ready to light up a legislative body bound by tradition and defined by genteel discourse and ideological compromise.

Before his first year in office had lapsed, though, the Democrat was already casting votes to appease his party's senior leadership and show Republicans that he could and would play ball. He voted for a measure supporting Bush as Commander in Chief, co-sponsored a trade bill with Sen. Jesse Helms, and cast a vote to oppose aid to Iraq. "I don't believe I showed much courage because I did not vote what I believed," he would tell New York Times congressional correspondent Richard L. Berke after agreeing to economically ostracize Iraq. "I felt real empty, completely depleted afterwards."

The Berke piece, dated November 10, 1991 and entitled "The Education of Paul Wellstone," makes for an eerie read, both because of the author's prescient analysis--that Wellstone couldn't help getting sucked into the Senate's incestuous, out-of-touch vortex--and Wellstone's comments, which suggest he is tortured by the sellout he sees coming but is powerless to stop. As Bush 2.0 prepares to send U.S. troops to finish off Hussein, one can't help wondering: If Wellstone felt empty 10 years ago, what could possibly be left of either his heart or his soul on the eve of this, his second run for reelection?

On more than one occasion in this space, I've condemned Wellstone's failure to stand up for civil liberties in the wake of 9/11--specifically, his decision to vote for an Orwellian piece of legislation known, ironically, as the U.S. Patriot Act. Still, even after acknowledging that it was right that the senator take heat for reneging on his oft-repeated promise not to run for a third term, I insisted that now was not the time to let "subtle differences get in the way of political gain." After all, Wellstone is still the nation's most liberal legislator (on paper, at least) and to attack him for not batting 1.000 would only increase the chances that former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman would unseat the incumbent in November.

In the past two months, though, while waiting for Wellstone to make a cohesive, compelling case against military action in Iraq, it has become clear that nothing matters more to the conspicuously silent lawmaker than winning. As a result, each electoral victory is less meaningful. As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair argued in an opinion piece published on the Counterpunch Web site (www.counterpunch.org) in June, "[Wellstone has] not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left, even within his own party, let alone the overall national stage."

This summer, Bush had to fight off members of his own party and a few rebellious Democrats when he began stumping to invade Iraq. Wellstone, meanwhile, got in lock step with the majority of his party, known to those who track campaign contributions as the Democratic Leadership Council. Like most incumbent legislators up for reelection this fall, Wellstone's safely neutral position is that Bush must prove that Hussein poses a "credible threat" before he would sanction unilateral military action. Whatever that means.

In fact, there has been little substantial debate on a number of fronts because Wellstone and his cohorts have chosen not to make an argument. They have ceded the rhetorical battleground to Bush (who invokes 9/11 for effect, international law for expedience) and the Republicans (the most skeptical of whom are turning out to be more hawkish than not). This acquiescence is criminal, considering what is at stake.

For instance, even if you believe that Saddam's Iraq is a hub of evil, it still may be better to isolate him than to attack him, especially given the U.S.'s record in regime building and the likelihood that every military action we undertake in Muslim countries is a recruiting tool for anti-U.S. elements.

Preemptive military actions in a region where vast hordes of people already believe the worst of U.S. motives are bound to haunt us. At the very least, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (not exactly a dove) argued in an op-ed piece last week, the U.S. should slow down long enough to broaden support, fine-tune military planning, develop a coherent blueprint for the post-Saddam era, and conduct diplomacy aimed at cooling tension in the Middle East.

So where's Wellstone? After all, this is the guy who told the New York Times a year after he was elected that "life is sacred, and my standard is to do everything you can to avoid loss of life, regardless of who the people are and the country they live in."

According to Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant, who chimed in last week with a piece entitled "Paul Wellstone is not an outsider anymore," it is simply a matter of maturity. Our senator, Sturdevant concludes approvingly, "appears to have concluded that playing the respectfully skeptical seeker of truth is more, well, senatorial."

No kidding. At any rate that's one way to put it, agrees a Democratic insider turned Green strategist I talked to last week. Especially if your definition of "senatorial" squares with the centrists who run the Democratic Party, fund campaigns, and convince candidates that public opinion polls are more important than principle: "The guy has a messianic complex. The party has convinced him that the future of the U.S. Senate rests on his shoulders. What does that mean? It means don't rock the boat. And yeah, that kind of makes you wonder: What's the point?"

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