Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge? Anyone who thinks we’ll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004 to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year. Here’s Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. “His race,” Nichols wrote tremulously this spring, “is being read as a measure of the potency of progressive politics in America.”
Wellstone’s opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many Minnesotans aren’t enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone’s dubious future, liberals are now screaming about “the spoiler,” who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May 18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000 in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona LaDuke, Nader’s vice-presidential running mate, didn’t want a Green to run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts, backstabbing McGaa.
For his part, McGaa confronts the “you’re just helping the Republicans” charge forthrightly: “Let’s just let the cards fall where they’re at,” he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. “It will be a shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I’m not enamored by George Bush’s policies.” But McGaa says he’ll probably get a slice of Jesse Ventura’s Independent Party vote too: “So you Wellstone people can just calm down.” McGaa’s own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy, remember, who promised back in 1991 that he’d go to Washington with his chief role as Senator being to work “with a lot of people around the country-progressive grassroots people, social-action activists-to extend the limits of what’s considered politically realistic.”
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last year the following bleak assessment: “10 years after he took his Senate seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He never emerged as the left’s national spokesman for reforms in health care, campaign finance, or anything else.”
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton. No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991 but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft’s war on terror, when Russell Feingold was the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone’s senatorial career across twelve years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain enough; he’s not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left, even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don’t have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies to within three votes of passage in the Senate. Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed. He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync with Wellstone’s future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America? Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge that Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence Ventura’s triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement, then it will be a verdict on Wellstone’s failures rather than some supposed Green irresponsibility.