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The Speech Heard Round the World

Tony Nelson

POSTED 11/7/2002 1:15PM CST

BY THE TIME he showed up to turn out the lights in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Roger Moe had his loser's lament well in hand. Big night for Republicans everywhere. We just got caught up in it.

We will be hearing this noise for some time to come, but that doesn't mean it explains anything. The real question--unless you honestly believe that last Tuesday represented a national outcry on behalf of an abysmal economy and more foreign wars waged at the whim of the executive branch--is not how the Republicans managed to win but how the Democrats managed to lose. In the most important sense it was as usual the Democratic Leadership Council (progeny of Bill Clinton, Al From, and the "New Democrats") that sabotaged the Dems by helping broker the candidacies of another wave of pale Republican wanna-be's and seeing to it that their campaigns left alone the real hot-button issue of the season, corporate malfeasance.

We all know what comes next: Rank & file Democrats will whinge about the party's throwing up proto-Republicans and losing; the DLC apologists who control the party will insist that they lost because they weren't proto-Republican enough.

The Democrats might still have held their own, which was all they really meant to do, if not for an accident of circumstance in Minnesota, where they suffered their most boggling loss. Consider: A widely loved and almost universally respected incumbent Democrat sports a 4-6 point lead in the polls as the campaign winds down; he dies a martyr's death 10 days before the election; he is replaced by an institution of Minnesota politics who manages a brief but spirited campaign; this replacement holds a 5-point lead in the last major tracking poll before the election; and the turnout is huge, a factor that usually favors Democrats. The Republican wins.

Well, you know. It was a big night for Republicans everywhere. Myself, I suspect this gets backward the relationship between events here and around the country. If anything, the national furor touched off by the televised Wellstone memorial rally--which was flogged endlessly on cable news networks, in newspaper columns, on talk radio and Internet mail lists--helped galvanize marginal Republican voters across the country. There will never be polls to measure such a thing, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were responsible for Republican wins in one or two close races in other states. Here at City Pages we received a staggering and unprecedented volume of form letters from outraged out-of-state GOP sympathizers demanding equal time for Norm Coleman--well over a thousand of them. To say the Wellstone service touched a nerve is almost laughable understatement. For Republicans everywhere it was another galling proof of the tyranny of liberal media.

For everyone else, particularly those of us here at home who tried to watch the whole thing, the most grievous offense of the Wellstone memorial telecast was not that it turned into a rally but that the whole thing seemed so tedious and boring and strange on television. The underlying public complaint was really this: You made huge demands on our time and attention and you bored us; you took a real event, one that provoked genuine feeling in the great majority of us, and you made it seem cheap by using it to sell us something. All fair criticisms. Whatever it did to rile Republicans, the controversy also put a fire under independents and sometime-voters who were simply offended by the sheer absurdity and unseemliness of the spectacle.

Everything about the telecast was a disaster. It was a worthy idea to make a point of using the service to eulogize the other people who died in the crash as well, but it made for terrible TV. And then, o lord, there was The Speech, which parted the Red Sea and delivered Norm Coleman out of Egypt.

I watched Rick Kahn's 20-minute eulogy again last night on C-SPAN's website. It was just as painful the second time around. Kahn loses it around the eight-minute mark, and the rest is an orgy of grief, righteousness, and bizarre, abject extemporaneous pleadings that should have been delivered first on a therapist's couch, and never, under any circumstances, on television. A week from today, Paul Wellstone's name will not, and cannot, be on the ballot. But there will be a choice nonetheless, either to embrace his legacy in the United States Senate... or bring it forever to an end.

On the last count he had a point. From the start it was clear that Walter Mondale stood no chance of positively impressing the people who were Wellstone's swing voters, the cantankerous individualists (mostly male, mostly suburban) who disagreed with him on nearly everything but favored him anyway for his personal integrity and enthusiasm. The selection of Mondale cut these people adrift; Kahn and Tom Harkin pushed them squarely into Coleman's camp. But don't go blaming Fritz. If Mondale was a dispiriting substitute for Wellstone, a relic of traditional institutional politics who was incapable of generating any real heat on his own behalf, this was less a sign of his failing than of Wellstone's.

Stop and ask yourself how it was the DFL was put in the position of offering up Fritz in the first place. Part of the job of any populist insurgent is to use whatever success he or she attains to spread the gospel through the state party. As a practical matter that means you groom and promote candidates for a variety of state offices; you strive to remake the party apparatus in something closer to your own image. There is no way around this; it's not optional. It's the only way a party's agenda gets changed from below. But in Minnesota as in Washington, Wellstone chose to be a "team player" in all the worst ways, kow-towing to a party hierarchy whose only care where he was concerned was to marginalize him. If you read Sarah Stoesz's recollections of Paul Wellstone in our memorial issue two weeks ago, perhaps you noticed the following. Recounting a day of campaigning with Wellstone, she said, "I'm embarrassed to say I made a cynical remark about another DFL candidate, and Paul admonished me about that." In the long run Wellstone turned into a love slave of the party, which is to say of the DLC, a grievous error that--as we see too clearly now--ended up selling out the heart of his constituency.

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