Whither Wellstone?

IT WAS GOOD to see Paul Wellstone re-elected last month, but let's not kid ourselves. Measured by what he went to Washington to do, Wellstone's first term was a water-treading proposition at best. He did not lose his soul. He did lose something, however, and whether it was his nerve or his vision we shall soon see.

In April 1991, just a few short months after assuming office, Wellstone told me his priorities for the next six years lay in four areas: health care, in which he looked to be the leading national advocate of a single-payer system; kids and education; energy policy; and campaign finance reform. In one of these areas, Wellstone scored a victory by engineering the demise of a bad energy bill, but he then choked at the prospect of offering up a progressive bill of his own. On health care, the most historic issue of his first term, he was co-opted out of a strong single-payer stance by the personal ministrations of Hillary Clinton.

In October 1996, Wellstone said his key agenda items for a second term were kids and education; reducing violence in communities; health care (though what that means now isn't clear); and--deficit reduction. Granted, this was campaign rhetoric, but it was dispiriting all the same. The talk of "reducing violence in communities" is particularly chilling. It's the sort of thing liberals say when they mean to touch a chord but do not mean to attack the real root of the problem, which on a broad scale is always economic. The hand-wringing commences, Rodney King's eternal refrain is sounded--why, why can we not get along?--a good cry is had, and everyone goes home. I don't know about you, but I didn't vote for Wellstone to have a good cry, or to hear yet another voice prating about deficit reduction.

It comes down to this. Wellstone in his first term fell prey to his desire to be liked and respected by his colleagues. One of the worst things that befell him was to be welcomed with open arms by then-majority leader George Mitchell, who did a good deal to blunt Wellstone's better impulses in the name of socializing him to the Senate. What, after all, was Wellstone's great strength when he set out for Washington? He was an excellent grassroots political organizer who was acquainted with a good many other excellent organizers. The Washington he encountered was marked by a stunning and perhaps unparalleled degree of insulation from the workaday concerns of the country; what Congress needed most then, and needs most now, was populist figures who could mobilize the public to bring real pressure upon the courtesans of the monied interests. There is only one way for a left dissident to have any hope of building a base on Capitol Hill nowadays, and that is by appealing directly and fervently to the public, and helping them to organize. It probably would not be stretching things to say that Wellstone went to Washington as well-credentialed for that role as anyone ever has.

And he spit the bit. He fought the good fight in certain respects, but he was reduced mostly to rear-guard actions, in defense of heating funds for poor families and funding for stop-gap education programs. He was not a leader, really, and could not be--cannot be--as long as he conceives his proper arena to be the Senate floor. To find his real audience he has to go over the heads of his colleagues and draw upon his connections and skills as an organizer once again.

As to his second term, we shall see. The fact that his agenda did not include the key staging area of the next year or two, Social Security, is not encouraging. (Nor, for that matter, is his signing on to the Foreign Relations Committee to monitor human rights abroad--to which the appropriate retort is, what about human rights at home?) If health care was the historic issue of his first term, it seems likely that the effort to dismantle this last key bit of social insurance will be one of the defining issues this time. Wellstone needs to be a player if the privateers are to be thwarted.

If he really means to use the next six years constructively, he needs to get out in front on a few issues quickly, most obviously Social Security and Medicare. In the meantime, so far as building a profile goes, I humbly submit the following. Wellstone should get involved with Pat Moynihan's planned legislation to limit or ban the public financing of sports facilities, and help to put an end to the pillaging of state and municipal coffers by roving bands of millionaire hoodlums. The issue has obvious appeal back home, where the public resolutely opposes welfare for the Pohlads, and it would play well on the road. And since it's a question of sports, it would get ample coverage in the press. Symbolically it would go some distance toward making Wellstone a national populist figure--assuming that is something he still wants to be.

PUTTING AN END to Social Security as we've known it will be one of the main initiatives of the second Clinton administration. A Sunday New York Times story about the pending Clinton panel report shows a majority favoring some version of a privatization scheme whereby people would be required to go it alone on their retirement savings and investment decisions--this at a time when credit card debt continues to spiral out of sight owing to the troubles people are already having holding onto their standards of living. The so-called Social Security crisis is largely trumped up to effect just this sort of change. It would be easy enough to fix matters simply by raising the ceiling on Social Security taxes, which presently cut off each year at $66,000 in annual income; those who make more quit paying at that point. But the "reformers" have no intention of mending things. They want to eradicate it, precisely because, as panelist and former Social Security commissioner Robert Ball put it, the program "is based on the premise that we're all in this together, with everyone sharing responsibility for the security of everyone else, present and future." To leave a program like that in place in the global age would be un-American.

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