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November 12, 2002
I didn’t follow Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s twelve-year political career all that closely. Still, I felt a real loss and sense of sadness for the nation when he died in a plane crash three weeks ago.
Wellstone was called “the conscience of the Senate.” He was one of the few contemporary politicians who did not run away from the “L” word. He was a fighter for the little guy, the average American, the 99% of us who scratch out a living from our own labors. He mourned the loss of American values and struggled, alone at times, against the “conservative” tide of governmental and societal dismantling that the Republican Party has waged for the last twenty-five years.
I put the word “conservative” in quotation marks because there is nothing conservative about the GOP’s radical agenda. Ironically, Senator Wellstone more accurately fit the definition of conservative---he fought to conserve the best parts of the American ideal. He appealed to our best instincts and higher consciousness rather than to our selfishness and base proclivities. For this, he was labeled with the right-wing epithet, “liberal.” He wore the label with pride.
The passing of Senator Wellstone brings into sharp focus the vacuum that now exists within the Democratic Party. Unfocused and uninspired, the Democrats have been unable to offer a clear vision of America for the American people. As a result, the nastiest, vilest aspects of modern-day Republicanism have triumphed virtually unchallenged. The American people are so repulsed by this one-sided spectacle that most stay home, while others are lured into voting against their own interests by misleading, emotional appeals to their fears and prejudices.
Why have no progressive leaders emerged from the Baby Boom generation? Has the GOP hate machine been so successful in turning off the public that no person of substance dares put himself or herself into the sausage grinder of a political campaign?
Senator Wellstone was not a Baby Boomer. At 58 years old, he predated that huge demographic by a couple of years. Yet, he embodied the once-stated ideals of that generation---concern for the less fortunate, equal opportunity for all, a living wage for workers, access to affordable healthcare, excellence in education, selfless stewardship of the environment, responsible corporate behavior, renewable non-fossil fuel energy resources, safety in the workplace, protection from domestic violence for women and children, support for small businesses and family farms, human rights and justice. His was not a style built on meaningless soundbites and one-liners, and he was no great orator. He was a doer, who acted thoughtfully in the best interests of the whole.
In that respect, Paul Wellstone leaves behind a template for the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the current crop of party leaders has displayed little real passion or commitment to such ideals.
I am greatly disheartened at the Democratic Party’s inability to provide alternative leadership at this time when responsible leadership is sorely needed. Take a look at Senator Wellstone’s own state of Minnesota, a state with a proud history of progressive leadership in the Democratic Farmer Labor party. Where did they look for a replacement after Wellstone’s death?
Apparently there’s no bench strength there, as the party turned to the past in calling on former Vice President Walter Mondale to fill the slot. Granted, Mondale is a fine man, an experienced legislator and an excellent role model for younger would-be leaders. Nonetheless, at 75 years old and 18 years away from the national stage, he should be enjoying his retirement years and offering sage advice to his political heirs. Instead, he felt compelled to step back into the political ring 26 years after he last served in the Senate.
In Virginia, the Democratic Party could offer no one as a candidate to oppose aging Senator John Warner. In Hampton Roads, freshman Republican representatives Ed Schrock and Jo Ann Davis got free rides back to re-election.
I disagreed vehemently with Ralph Nader two years ago when he said there was no difference between the two major parties. I am certain that having one house of Congress with a Democratic majority curbed some of the most egregious excesses of Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, et al, over the last two years. But there’s got to be more than curbing the other guys’ excesses to ignite a fire within the American people. The Democratic Party must reclaim its ideals, establish a forward-looking agenda, frame the issues and lead the way for a new political dialog in this country.
It will not be easy. The voices of negativity, selfishness, hate and anger are very loud. But Paul Wellstone proved that one lone, intelligent, gutsy guy could triumph over money, spite and special interests. Surely there are others who are courageous enough to follow his example.
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