Dark Horse

Shannon Brady

If left Democrats are to have any hope of taking back their party from the special interests who bought it, and to begin to re-create viable progressive electoral politics, they're going to have to start coagulating--soon--around a presidential candidate for the year 2000. As one veteran strategist of insurgent campaigns puts it, "Al Gore is already running full throttle. He's in hock to Corporate America, so he'll have all the money he needs. But for that reason he's also up to his neck in the fundraising scandals which, unless the Republican primaries regurgitate a reactionary fruit loop, means that he's easy to beat in a general election--especially since by then the Asian financial crisis will have sent the economy reeling.

"Who's out there? [Missouri Rep.] Dick Gephardt is an issues flip-flopper, and as a Washington insider he's compromised in the eyes of many turned-off voters--besides which he's about as exciting as watching paint dry. Jesse Jackson has been bought off by the White House, and in any case he's shopworn now. [Delaware Sen.] Joe Biden doesn't stand for anything--on issues he's about as real as his hair implants. And [Nebraska Sen.] Bob Kerrey believes in Republican, deficit-hawk economics, as does Jay Rockefeller, who doesn't seem to have real fire in the belly to make the race."

That's why the potential candidacy of Minnesota's feisty, populist U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone is increasingly being considered by left Democrats as a possible rallying point. Wellstone became a hero to left liberals when, in 1996, he was the only Democratic senator running for re-election who had the guts to vote against the Clinton administration's welfare abolition bill (although he's not been above casting a few electorally expedient votes he knew to be wrong: he supported both the anti-civil libertarian Clinton anti-terrorism bill and--despite an otherwise flawless record on gay issues--the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act). Wellstone won re-election handily, surviving a heavy GOP TV blitz with an astute combination of attacks on corporate special interests, down-to-earth talks about bread-and-butter issues, and an impressive precinct-level field operation that got out his vote.

Wellstone tried to jump-start his exploratory candidacy last summer by embarking on a "poverty tour"--a conscious imitation of Robert Kennedy's 1967 visits to the nation's poorest regions. Wellstone criss-crossed the country from the Mississippi Delta and the mines of Appalachia to the ghettos of Chicago and New York, but garnered little national media attention. And his visits to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states, sandwiched in between his senatorial duties, were sharply curtailed by a back injury incurred while wrestling, the 53-year-old's favorite sport.

"After eight weeks in rehab," says Wellstone, "I'm really behind." Now recovered, he's about to resume his forays into primary and caucus states, and puts his chances of deciding to run for president at "about 50-50."

"I'm not going to take up people's time," he adds, "unless I think this [effort] can be really significant."

Wellstone's chances of raffling the nomination from Gore and the deep-pockets Clinton apparatus he inherits are, of course, exceedingly slim. But he'd be an articulate left voice who could crack open the hitherto desultory debate about his party's future, and his candidacy has the potential to help launch a new progressive electoral movement. If Wellstone eventually decides to run, the state in which he has the best chance to make the early breakthrough he'll need is Iowa.

Ask the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, Iowa's sharpest political reporter, to assess Wellstone's chances, and he says that "Wellstone has a geographic advantage here: Iowa is no different from rural Minnesota, and candidates from neighboring states always do well here. It's easy for him to get here and campaign, and to bring his supporters in here to help get out his vote in the caucuses."

Wellstone's passionate, populist stump speech also goes down well with Iowa Democrats, says Yepsen. "They really like what they hear. The problem is, they don't really see him as a president."

It's what one East Coast establishment liberal jokingly refers to as Wellstone's "Richard Dreyfuss syndrome. Paul is a great guy who says all the right things, but there's a lack of gravitas in his demeanor that isn't really presidential." When he gets an audience revved up, the enthusiasm of his listeners feeds his own, and by the end of a speech before a "hot" crowd, Wellstone--his arms flailing, his tie askew, the veins in his wrestler's neck bulging--is often literally jumping up and down as his peroration ends in a sweaty near-shriek.

While his occasionally over-the-top oratory might not fit conventional wisdom's definition of what is "presidential," Wellstone's jubilant passion is that of a great organizer; that's how the ex-college professor and longtime activist first won election, and how he survived the massive Republican left-baiting that tried to defeat him two years ago. In his '96 re-election campaign, Wellstone pledged not to run for the Senate again, which means he has nothing to lose. No longer hobbled by the constraints of local electoral calculations, the senator as a presidential candidate would be liberated from the winning-is-everything psychosis of front-runnerdom by the remoteness of eventual victory.  

So, if his potential national candidacy is to have meaning, it will be about grassroots organizing that could have far-reaching consequences: the creation of an alternative to the center-right Clinton-Gore politics of corruption at all levels.

Wellstone, however, has so far failed to articulate an organizing strategy. Previous insurgent presidential campaigns, like those of Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown, failed to use the enthusiasm they'd generated as a vehicle for progressive politics. In his standard speech, Wellstone flails the "hostile takeover" of the Democratic Party by the special interests and Corporate America. Doesn't that analysis cry out for a permanent organizational effort to take the candidacy beyond the personal?

"Wow! Yeah," says Wellstone when asked the question. "That's something I've thought a lot about. The race has to be bigger than one person. You want to make sure that you've pushed politics forward. A lot of liberals, progressives, justice activists, whatever you want to call them, have lost the art of organizing. We have to galvanize people and build for the future."

Wellstone clearly thinks that it's too early in his nascent candidacy to go much beyond these generalities, and there's some disagreement among his advisers about whether building a new organization inside the Democratic Party should be an articulated, organic part of the campaign.

"A candidacy which would have the greatest potential of success would eventually be about building a movement for change," says Peter Edelman, the former RFK aide who resigned from the Clinton administration over welfare abolition and is one of Wellstone's closest friends and advisers. "If he decides to proceed, the premise is not personal advancement but rather a movement-oriented organizing approach, one that says: Here's something we can all join together. There are an awful lot of people out there who are unorganized, disaffected, and reachable.

"Jerry Brown was a loner who never operated in a way that he could even be part of an organization, let alone build one. Jesse functions as a person who says, 'Show me a TV camera and I'll make my case.' Paul reflects a contemporary version of progressive politics--he's not some kind of nostalgia merchant. He is somebody capable of building an organization--he did in Minnesota--and he has the patience, the perseverance and the commitment to stay with something he starts, backed by a 25-year history of organizing."

But for Robert Borosage, another key Wellstone adviser who directs the Washington-based Campaign for America's Future--and who first met Wellstone when he slept on the professor's couch during Jackson's '88 campaign--talk of building a permanent movement is "utterly unrealistic."

"Look," says Borosage, "the problem is that the presidential primaries--which is the point at which the public pays attention--are now front-loaded. Fifty percent of the delegates are chosen within the first six weeks. What you get with a presidential-primary fight is a candidate who inspires and makes your case, and takes a message to millions that is often only heard by hundreds.

"Jackson is notorious for not building anything--he pissed it all away, didn't even save the mailing lists! But there were at least half a dozen winning congressional candidates--from Cynthia McKinney in Georgia to Cleo Fields in Louisiana to Wellstone himself--who were able to use Jesse's campaign as a vehicle to make contacts and challenge the encrusted old guard. The reality is, that's the best you can get out of a presidential campaign. You can galvanize and stimulate, but if you're running for president, you're running for president. Taking your message and trying to pierce the media with it is hard enough to do."

Sam Kaplan, the Minneapolis lawyer who chaired Wellstone's two campaigns for Senate, agrees with Borosage. "After Paul's winning '90 race, we tried to build an ongoing group called the Wellstone Alliance," says Kaplan, "to energize the troops, keep up their enthusiasm, and support other progressive candidates. We found that things just weren't that transferable. Putting something like that together is a lot to ask anybody--and it's applying a higher standard to Paul than has been applied to other progressive candidates."

There's also disagreement about what kind of a movement--if one at all--Wellstone should build. Jeff Faux, who heads the labor-financed Economic Policy Institute and also advises Wellstone, argues that "we need not just a political network--like the Democratic Leadership Council on the right--but a grassroots base, especially labor." For Faux that means "a broader, classed-based politics in a 21st-century context. It has to be much more working-class oriented, and much less so on race and gender." In other words, downplay what neo-liberals have attacked as "identity politics."  

Borosage disagrees. "The notion that you can enlist people without dealing with their concerns is false. I remember Jesse telling white Teamsters in Atlanta, 'You're patch isn't big enough. The peace, feminist, and gay activists--these are your people!' Dick Gephardt and Al Gore will carry an identity message in the primaries. So you've got to reach out if you want to get off the launching pad." Or, as the civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin used to say, in politics all coalitions are based on mutual self-interest.

Wellstone won't make a final decision on whether or not to enter the presidential race until just after this fall's midterm congressional elections. Which way it goes will depend in part on Wellstone's personal soundings as he resumes criss-crossing the country, in part on the response to a planned direct-mail fundraising campaign. "By that time, you still won't have any opinion polls that mean anything," notes one adviser, "so it's a little bit like reading tea leaves."

Or, as Wellstone himself says, "Despite all the science of manipulation in politics, there's still mystery involved. If I can figure out what conversation to have with the American people..." Wellstone leaves the sentence unfinished. And the work that will provide the answer has only just begun.

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