When Greens talk to each other about how they’re disappointed with Senator Paul Wellstone, you rarely hear criticism of his decision to break the term limits pledge he made in 1990 and reiterated in 1996. You’re much more likely to hear references to Wellstone’s support for the “Defense of Marriage Act” (1996) or his support for various military actions unrelated to the defense of our country (1992-2002). Some Greens see the breaking of Wellstone’s promise as a minor thing, as something which should not be highlighted during the 2002 campaign because Wellstone simply changed his mind based on changed circumstances.
I don’t see it that way. I think it’s closely related to one of the most important values of the Green Party: grassroots democracy. Term limits is not a new concept. In ancient Athens, citizens made the laws themselves and every year they chose new administrators among themselves by using a lottery system. Admittedly, this system was flawed–women and slaves were not citizens–but it was an early attempt at democracy (“rule by the common people”).
In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson lamented that the new U.S. Constitution did not include mandatory “rotation in office.” Populists throughout the past 200 years have held to the ideal of our representatives being citizen legislators, rather than a permanent class of professional politicians. In the early ’90s, Ralph Nader advocated term limits for politicians as part of his “toolbox of democracy” (Concord Principles). Jerry Brown made term limits a central theme of his populist/progressive campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.
There’s an interesting book about the 1990 Minnesota senate race called “Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington.” Today, Senator Wellstone doesn’t want to leave. Who can blame him? He makes $150,000 a year (plus perks) and he’s a member of one of the most prestigious and powerful groups in the world. That’s not the whole story, of course. It’s too cynical. I think Wellstone also wants to make the world a better place (in a bleeding-heart, mushy-headed, big-government, Hubert-Humphrey sort of way).
Even if we disagree with Wellstone’s perspective or methods, he still deserves some credit for having aims more noble than accumulating personal power or doing favors for rich campaign contributors. That’s commendable and it sets him apart from most officeholders in Washington. But there’s one problem with extending this scenario year after year: Wellstone has become a professional politician. How long does he need to carry out his political goals? When he entered the Senate, he promised to use his position as a rallying spot for progressive, grassroots activists across the nation. That hasn’t happened. The true story is less romantic.
Here’s a case study to use when looking at the corrupting effects of hanging onto power for too long: Senator Wellstone and the use of the U.S. military in pursuit of the American Empire (“Policeman of the World,” “New World Order,” or whatever euphemism you prefer). Wellstone showed early promise as a vocal critic of George I’s war for oil (and missile corporations and Saudi bases). Six years later, amid a reelection struggle, Wellstone minimized his peace-making efforts. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, “He notes that he was in favor of sending the troops [to Saudi Arabia] but objected to sending them into war before all alternatives had been pursued.” (ST, 10-21-96) In other words, if sanctions had been tried for a while and Iraqi troops remained in Kuwait, then he would have supported the war for oil and other Bush objectives (democracy was obviously not one of them, since Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were both ruled by dictators).
Wellstone showed limited opposition to the military action of a Republican president, but when it came to Bush’s Democratic successor, Wellstone was a virtual cheerleader. He supported every single Clinton troop deployment, missile launch, and bomb drop: Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999). This record makes a person wonder if Wellstone’s principles aren’t severely diluted by partisanship. Is his political philosophy as simple-minded as Democrat=good, Republican=bad? Maybe. Unlike Democrats and Republicans, Greens in the U.S. Senate wouldn’t have to continually compromise their instincts and principles in order to please their party leader in the White House.
Paul Wellstone’s admiration for Hubert Humphrey is another possible explanation for his evolution into a supporter of continual U.S. military intervention in other countries (always in a context of little or no threat to U.S. citizens). Humphrey had his good points, but his brand of liberalism was pragmatic and largely based on his own emotional personality, not on constitutional principles or spiritual values. This being the case, whenever a president couched some imperialistic endeavor in nice-sounding, humanitarian language, Humphrey was pleased as punch to give his enthusiastic support to the mission. So, you had him endorsing interventions in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic and the war in Vietnam.
Like Humphrey, Wellstone tends to support a foreign policy pursued mostly for the benefit of transnational corporations and wealthy Americans whenever it’s cloaked in idealistic rhetoric. That’s a really unfortunate tendency. It’s unfortunate for middle-class Americans who pay burdensome taxes for these military “chess games”; it’s unfortunate for the brave men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line for veiled, less-than-noble policies; and it’s unfortunate for the many innocent people in other countries who are maimed and killed during these endeavors. Playing the long-established game of throwing some verbal crumbs to the voting base of their party, Democratic presidents are especially adept at using warm-and-fuzzy words-“I feel your pain” on a global scale-to justify power-and-profit policies. Ever hopeful of the good intentions of party colleagues, Wellstone signs off on all of these misuses of the military. For example, it apparently never occurred to him that our government’s “feed the hungry” military mission in Somalia might have had something to do with oil exploration and exploitation rights granted to Conoco, Amoco, and Chevron before civil war rendered those rights unuseable.
Turning to domestic policy, another case study comes to mind. Many liberals were disappointed when Wellstone voted for the “Defense of Marriage Act” passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. Regardless of the merits of the bill, it has to be conceded that the idea of Clinton acting as the nation’s “defender of marriage” is laughable! The same could probably be said for many of the sanctimonious members of Congress, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gay and lesbian activists were stunned and angered in June 1996 when Wellstone announced at a gay-sponsored fundraiser he “personally opposes same-sex marriages” and was considering voting for the “Defense of Marriage” bill which would deny federal recognition of them (Star Tribune, 6-5-96). It seemed completely out of character for the “enlightened,” progressive politician.
We might be able to piece together an explanation from the news story. The Star Tribune noted, “He faces reelection this fall in a race that is a top target nationally for Republicans.” Two sentences later, the reporter says, “Wellstone shocked the crowd when he said he was raised to believe that marriage was reserved for the union of one man and one woman.” This was the first his gay supporters had heard of this basic belief. Presumably, Wellstone was also raised to believe that romance and sex should be between one man and one woman, but that hadn’t stopped him from unreservedly supporting gay rights throughout his years as a college teacher, political activist, and office holder.
Wellstone’s campaign manager denied that the Senator’s move against gay marriage was part of an election year strategy to go along with bills supported by a majority of voters, thus minimizing vulnerability at the hands of his Republican opponent. It is rather coincidental that he seemed to go against character while in the middle of a reelection campaign. The strange timing and manner of his announcement makes me wonder if he wasn’t following the same image-driven strategy used by Clinton in 1992, when he reassured white suburban voters by insulting Sister Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition meeting.
Let’s assume that Wellstone really was “speaking from the gut.” Just because he was raised to believe something doesn’t necessarily make it right. For example, lots of people are raised to believe in racial prejudice and gender stereotypes. Part of growing up is determining for oneself what’s right and wrong. And even if Wellstone the adult is personally convinced that same-sex marriage is wrong, that would not necessarily dictate support for the “Defense of Marriage Act.” A “personally opposed” stance does not require a liberal Democrat to support legal codification of that personal viewpoint-witness the scores of liberals who “personally oppose” abortion but have no problem voting against proposed laws which restrict abortion.
If there was some political calculation in the Wellstone move-and it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some-it paid off, as you can see from this headline three days later: “Gay Leaders Say They Still Back Wellstone” (ST, 6-8-96). Partly out of overprivileged self-interest and partly out of the political equivalent of battered-spouse syndrome, leaders of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies almost always stick with the Democrat in an election, regardless of how much neglect, humiliation, and mistreatment they’ve suffered at the hands of that politician. It’s one reason the Democratic Party will never change. The only people in a position to force that change are either too sold-out or too scared to take real action. The Wellstone campaign knew that in 1996.
Some party activists and gay leaders openly acknowledged the probable cynicism of Wellstone, as they rushed to his side and made the requisite excuses for his disappointing behavior. A Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) activist at Wellstone’s gay-sponsored fundraiser told a reporter, “This was a sophisticated crowd. He could have told them that he was considering signing [sic] the bill because he couldn’t afford to have the religious right attack him on that issue, that he needed those suburban middle-class voters. I think they would have accepted that.” (ST, 6-5-96)
I guess I’m not sophisticated enough. I would have been angered by a politician who was that cynical on such an important issue! Even if I disagreed with his position, I could have respected it if he’d told me it’s because his belief in Judaism and commitment to God forbid the sanctioning of same-sex marriage.
Wellstone tried to straddle the two approaches. He vaguely claimed it was his personal belief but his vagueness allowed more “sophisticated” activists to interpret his position as a political self-defense measure. For me, that’s the worst of all possible worlds. He didn’t have the courage to openly explain either (A) his religious convictions or (B) his political expediency (take your pick of the real explanation-the former would have alienated most people at the gay fundraiser; the latter would have angered most of the voting public).
Taking conspiracy theory and twisted logic to a new level, a leader of the Human Rights Campaign made the assertion that the whole purpose of the “Defense of Marriage” bill was to “divide Senator Wellstone from an important part of his constituent base” and that gays and lesbians “should not be tricked.” It’s not that the legislation was introduced by those genuinely fearful that the “sacred institution” of marriage was under attack by a growing movement at the state level. It’s not that Wellstone betrayed his principles for political gain (figuring he was in a win-win situation since he wouldn’t alienate the majority of culturally conservative voters and would retain the support of most gay and lesbian voters). No, the bill was “designed precisely to drive people like Senator Wellstone out of Congress” and he was smart enough to not fall into the trap. He avoided the trap by moving toward an anti-gay rights position. That was a good move, according to this gay rights leader. Even in 1996 the whole world revolved around Wellstone and access to politicians like him by quasi-liberal interest group leaders. Some things never change!
When he announced his final decision to vote for the “Defense of Marriage” bill, Wellstone referred to gays who disagreed with his position, saying, “I’ve said to them, I don’t think we should change the definition of marriage. It is the central institution of American life. You reach a certain consensus in society, and no court decision is going to change that.” (ST, 9-10-96) When it comes to social consensus and court decision, you could say the exact same thing about Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which outlawed public school segregation or Roe v. Wade (1973) which legalized abortion in all 50 states. It’s seemingly-glib comments like this-from a man with a PhD in political science!-which make me question either Wellstone’s knowledge or integrity. You can debate the merits (separately) of the nationwide social consensus for segregation in the 1940s or against abortion in the 1960s, but the fact is judges stepped in and overruled popular opinion…and Wellstone approves of that judicial rejection of majority rule. Why is he inconsistent when it comes to same-sex marriage? Since when did he become a champion of biblically-based popular sovereignty over politically-correct judical tyranny? That’s out of character for a darling of the limousine-liberal set. It’s another indication that he was at least partly playing politics with the issue.
In 1996, Wellstone did not just have Minnesota voters in mind. If he was able to win reelection, he had thoughts of running for President. Six months after voting for the “Defense of Marriage Act,” word was being spread that Wellstone might run for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination. That may have been an additional factor in his support for the federal ban on same-sex marriage. He would have seriously hurt his chances of attracting support in the primaries in culturally conservative areas of the country if he’d taken an unpopular, controversial position on a wedge issue like gay marriage. In the end, Wellstone decided to opt out of the presidential race, but his national ambitions were probably another factor in his surprising 1996 position.
Let’s compare Wellstone’s privately-held beliefs about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage with a couple other progressive politicians who believed in the sanctity of human life. In the 1960s and ’70s, Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) and Senator Harold Hughes (D-IA) were prominent liberals in Washington. Both men were pro-life. I say “pro-life” instead of “anti-abortion” or “anti-choice” because they were consistently supportive of human life almost to the point of pacifism. They were Christians, but they were not Catholics and their opposition to legalized abortion did not come from a seemingly arbitrary edict of a patriarchal religious hierarchy.
In addition to being founded on a belief in nonviolence, their opposition to abortion was also tied to a belief that it was being promoted as a classist and racist tool by wealthy population controllers disinterested in supplying deeper and more just solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. You may disagree with their position, but it was publicly discussed, thoroughly explained, and consistently held (regardless of election dates and opinion polls). By 1973, Hatfield and Hughes had developed well-earned reputations as statesmen in progressive circles. They had been early opponents of the Vietnam War and outspoken critics of capital punishment. Although it was unusual for evangelical Christians to attempt a literal application of the Sermon on the Mount to public policy, by so doing, Hatfield and Hughes had drawn national attention to a nonviolent ethic reminiscent of the Quakers and Mennonites. So no one was surprised when they criticized Roe v. Wade. They had existing reputations as advocates for human life…and they hadn’t been taking contributions from the Population Council, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL.
In complete contrast, Paul Wellstone’s opposition to same-sex marriage seemed to come out of nowhere and then disappeared just as quickly. There were no prior allusions to social norms coming out of his family or personal morality coming out of his religion relating to the limits of homosexual legitimation. There were no subsequent attempts to change the minds of gay activists or write the principle into the party platform. That’s why, six years later, observers point to the 1996 election as the most likely explanation (“United They Sit,” City Pages, 1-16-02). Now, in 2002, we’re told by Wellstone apologists that he had to vote for Bush’s war in Afghanistan (which took the lives of thousands of civilians without bringing the 9-11 criminals to justice) and the misnamed “Patriot Act” (which should have been called the Big Brother is Watching You Act). If Wellstone had voted against these things, it would have been political suicide in an election year, we’re told. Is there anything Wellstone believes in deeply enough that he’s willing to risk losing his Senate seat? I guess it can’t be said that he would rather be right than be senator. The irony is, as his integrity erodes, he’ll lose more and more votes from those who care about integrity…and eventually he’ll be neither right nor senator. Then what will he have to show for his opportunism?
Breaking a term limits promise is not just an abstract thing. It has practical consequences. When a politician chooses to dishonor that pledge, it’s indicative of a deeper problem. That’s why he’s more and more apt to do other surprising and upsetting things-things like endorsing every overseas military attack pushed by a Democratic president, turning his back on the gay rights agenda when it becomes a liability on the eve of an election, and supporting a Republican president’s war policies and civil liberties infringements. If Wellstone’s lease on power is renewed, you can expect more of the same.
Shortly after Wellstone announced that he was breaking his term limits promise, the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute senior fellow Joe Nathan wrote a newspaper column entitled “A Time for Breaking Promises” (Rochester Post-Bulletin, 2-14-01). Nathan says, “I agree that Wellstone changed his mind and broke a promise. But I think breaking a commitment to the people who elected you sometimes is not only acceptable, but brave.” Spoken like a true political scientist! Sad to say, most of my colleagues in the field of American government have a decidedly elitist slant. Lacking political power and popular influence themselves, they fawn over those who have these qualities. Thus, when politicians break promises by raising taxes on the common people and giving themselves pay raises, they’re almost always hailed by political scholars for their “courage.”
It really doesn’t take much courage to be cynical, untrustworthy, and dishonorable. Experienced politicians know they can act like that and usually get away with it because the attention span of the average American voter is very short. By the time election day rolls around, if the betrayal hasn’t already been forgotten, it can be neutralized by emphasizing some secondary wedge issue or raising the spectre of the bogeyman (“If you don’t vote for X, you’ll get Y…then you’ll really be sorry!”). Plus, you have the “experts” on the editorial page and NPR telling the “educated” voter that the betrayal was really a brave act of statesmanship. Given these conditions, it’s very difficult to hold a politician to his or her word.
Nathan continues: “In general we should keep promises. But sometimes circumstances change. If you can be more helpful by breaking a promise, you should do it.” More helpful to whom? To one’s self? No, Nathan says he supports Wellstone because “he can help more Minnesotans by staying in Congress-at least for another six years.” Why only six years? If he stays for another thirty-six years, think of the seniority he’ll build up and the pork he’ll be able to deliver for the state! Using Nathan’s logic that longevity in office is desirable for a constituency, then why not have members of the U.S. Senate chosen for life (? la the U.S. Supreme Court)? That would give everyone plenty of time to develop the experience needed to grapple with the difficult issues of our nation, the freedom to rise above partisan pressures, and the invulnerability to bravely break lots of promises. Of course, Nathan’s logic of longer-is-better applies only to those select politicians who happen to agree with his beliefs. In other words, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms don’t qualify.
Nathan concludes that it will be helpful for Wellstone to continue in office for at least six more years. But what about the substantial portion of the state which did not vote for Wellstone in 1996? Will they be helped by Wellstone’s continuation in Washington? What about the malcontents who are so gauche that they expect politicians to live up to their promises…regardless of changing circumstances? Will they be helped by Wellstone’s reelection and the accompanying reinforcement of his cynical behavior? In defending promise-breaking, Nathan points out that “sometimes circumstances change.” No duh! Circumstances always change. That’s a given. The question is, How will a politician choose to respond to the changing circumstances? With integrity or opportunism? With public service or self service? With commitment or betrayal?
The changing circumstances rationale first used by Wellstone and echoed by apologists like Nathan is probably specious anyway. Wellstone didn’t groom anyone within the DFL to succeed him after making and remaking his no-third-term pledge. That strongly suggests that he had no intention of keeping his promise. Wellstone continued to raise campaign money and passed up the opportunity to publicly promote a successor in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Four years passed between his second election and the supposedly crucial changing of circumstances (Bush elected and the Senate evenly divided). This would lead an objective observer to suspect, if not conclude, that Wellstone never had any intention of retiring upon the conclusion of his second term.
Paul Wellstone is now a professional politician. There are certain groups which have a vested interest in keeping Wellstone in power, namely (A) the quasi-liberal interest group leaders who make a good living off talking about the problems of others and exploiting their fears and (B) the corporate-funded Democratic Party which finds it useful to have a tame “liberal” on board to point to whenever Ralph Nader begins his siren song.
The sad truth for progressives and populists is that Wellstone as a presence in Washington just isn’t that important. He hasn’t lived up to his promise. He hasn’t had much impact. He’s shifted his goal from universal, single-payer health insurance (a concrete, measurable goal) to helping people (an abstract goal which requires endless terms in office). His new, fuzzier goal gets corrupted not only by partisanship and gullibility but by one of the time-tested truisms of political science: power corrupts. He’s no longer the new person in Washington, bringing fresh ideas and real-life experiences to the cynical and surreal atmosphere of Capitol Hill and K Street. Now he’s part of that culture. Maybe not as debased as most, but still immersed.
Breaking his promise to serve only two terms isn’t the real problem. It’s a symptom. Wellstone the populist fighter lives on only in memory, stump speeches, and slick TV ads (many paid for by DFL soft money). Wellstone can’t claim to be a man of great integrity. He’s not that different from all the other politicians who call themselves “public servants” while they mostly serve themselves, their friends, and their pet causes. Wellstone may still be a cut above most national politicians, but he’s squandered the promise with which he began. His loss of integrity will cost him votes…and perhaps his office. That’s not the Green Party’s fault. It’s partly because Wellstone has chosen to tie his destiny to a corrupt and arrogant Democratic Party.
The Senator can’t hardly run on the slogan “Paul Wellstone: Just Another Politician Trying to Hang Onto His Job,” so the race is cast in portentous, almost apocalyptic terms. “Wellstone has to win to keep a Democratic majority in the Senate.” “Wellstone is Bush’s #1 target.” “If Wellstone loses, it’s the end of liberal civilization as we know it.” Yeah, right. How is Wellstone’s reliably Democratic vote any different from those of Tim Johnson or Bob Torricelli? When he does swim against the Democratic current, he’s casting a symbolic vote which doesn’t accomplish anything beyond bolstering his threadbare maverick image. If his one vote would make a real difference-against the interests of the Democratic establishment-he’d probably knuckle under with a self-deluded explanation.
That’s what it’s come to. Wellstone is pliant in relation to party leaders and he himself is not a leader of any organized movement. That makes him ineffective. When’s the last time he stopped a Democratic president from doing something bad? Or tried to change his party’s national platform in a major way? Or led a filibuster which stopped a big piece of bad legislation? Or affected the outcome of a presidential election? Or endorsed a progressive Republican? Or tried to start a third party? Or tried to stop a war?
Let’s face it: Paul Wellstone is no Robert La Follette or Burton Wheeler or Jeannette Rankin or Wayne Morse or Fannie Lou Hamer. They were men and women who didn’t bluster with populist rhetoric on the campaign trail but privately schmooze with the Manhattan/Beverly Hills elite and go along with the Washington power brokers when push comes to shove. They owed their jobs to the local voters, were pariahs within their own national parties, and repeatedly risked their careers for progressive principles. In contrast, Wellstone has left himself wide open to the charge that his 12 years in the Senate have been “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Dennis Tester, quoting Shakespeare). That’s not much of a legacy.
In his January 2002 City Pages article about Minnesota’s senators, G.R. Anderson Jr. noted that the national Democratic Party had no agenda. It was meekly following President Bush’s agenda. Bombing of Afghanis…partly to install a friendly and stable government to foster an oil consortium’s plans to build a Central Asian pipeline through the country? Sure! Legislation which gives the President and national security apparatus unprecedented power to spy on U.S. citizens and violate constitutional guarantees during times of (undeclared) war? Sure! Alternative visions for America, other than quibbling about budget numbers on domestic programs and tinkering with foreign policy strategies? Nope! Genuine debate over public policy ends, not just means? Nope!
As we move into the 2002 fall election, the Democratic Party suddenly has an agenda. How did this happen? Did the party go back to its platform and see some unfulfilled promises? No. Democratic platforms are vague and insincere documents which serve the short-term goal of attracting votes from the naive. Did the party remember its core set of principles or values? No. It has no foundational beliefs beyond its perpetual juggling act of pleasing Big Business while posing as the Party of the Common People and throwing an occasional crumb to the watered-down interest groups which provide dollars and votes every two years so party leaders can continue to sumptuously dine at the table with their Big Business friends.
The Democratic Party now has an agenda courtesy of privately-commissioned opinion polls and focus groups. The Green Party has the Ten Key Values. The Democratic Party has James Carville, Paul Begala, and Stanley Greenberg. These men have created the face of the modern Democratic Party, with its utter dishonesty, broken promises, and servility to Wall Street hidden behind slick ads and glossy brochures. These merchants of slime and spin deserve nothing but contempt from all honest and patriotic Americans, yet these are the kind of operators Wellstone turned to during his 1996 campaign and they will package his 2002 campaign. “Wellstone the paragon of virtue.” “Wellstone vs Big Oil.” “Wellstone with a union-label hard hat.” “Wellstone in denim with a seed-corn cap.” “Wellstone lives to help out us plain folks.” Who pays for this propaganda? Why is the national Democratic Party so eager to keep Wellstone in power if he’s a genuine threat to the bipartisan Power Elite?
Wanting to avoid negative campaigning, some Greens don’t want our endorsed senatorial candidate, Ed McGaa, to talk about the issue of Wellstone’s broken term limits pledge. I disagree. The McGaa campaign should present a positive message, but part of that message should be saying how he differs from his opponents. After all, this is a political contest, not a Kum Ba Ya let’s-hold-hands exercise! Wellstone’s promise to only serve two terms is a legitimate issue. It symbolizes an even more important issue: the Senator’s evolution into a professional politician. Most Minnesotans have an instinctive understanding of that, which is why Wellstone’s popularity has declined among the many Perot/Ventura/Independent voters.
I’ve heard Greens say, “Coleman will bring up Wellstone’s term limits switch anyway,” but there’s a problem with that scenario. Norm Coleman has little credibility when raising questions about someone’s political consistency and integrity. He seems be an opportunist of the worst sort! He entered politics as a prot?g? of Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III. During his short speech at the 1996 DFL state convention, Mayor Coleman invoked the name of Bill Clinton seven times and the name of his “friend Paul Wellstone” nine times (Star Tribune, 6-10-96). He later claimed neutrality in the Wellstone-Boschwitz senate race, but told an interviewer a week before the election, “I have only positive things to say about Paul” (ST, 10-26-96). At the same time, Coleman described himself as a “Clinton Democrat.” Even so, this Clinton Democrat was already thinking of jumping to the Republican Party because his chances of gaining higher office through the DFL seemed limited. Shortly after the election, he openly switched. That’s a record of ambition and convenience, not principle.
From student body president to mayor to gubernatorial nominee to senatorial candidate, Norm Coleman has spent his entire adult life seeking power. He’s a professional politician with a flexible conscience when it comes to political commitments. A man with Coleman’s track record is not in a credible position to criticize Wellstone’s evolution into a career politician who breaks campaign promises. As soon as Coleman brings it up, instead of dealing with the issue, Wellstone will dodge with a “You’re a great one to talk…”
Ed McGaa does not have this credibility problem. If he’s specifically asked about Wellstone’s integrity or is asked to distinguish himself from the incumbent, he can point out how the Senator’s term limits promise breaking is symptomatic of a deeper problem. As a citizen with a distinguished background and unique cultural perspective, McGaa can address the issue honestly without looking hypocritical. It will be a real critique-not campaign rhetoric from a two-faced politician.
Paul Wellstone made his term limits pledge when it was popular to do so. He broke it when it became inconvenient for him. No one forced him to make his 12-years-max promise in 1990. No one forced him to repeat it in 1996. It was a promise freely given and publicly used as a sign of his commitment to citizen-based government. Given this history, when regrets inevitably came, as the time to give up power approached, an honorable man would still have honored his commitment, however personally difficult it may have been. Wellstone declined to do so.
Let’s say that deep down Wellstone really is the same friend-of-the-people he was in 1990. If he had chosen to honor his pledge, think of the freedom he would have had during his entire second term to vote his conscience and serve his constituents. He could have groomed a successor for 2002 more electable than himself-one without so much baggage and polarization. He might have run for governor of Minnesota and actually had a chance to implement all of his idealistic notions. For example, real campaign finance and health care reforms are more possible at the state level. And he would have given Minnesotans a much better DFL choice than Roger Moe, who exemplifies the discredited system of entrenched power. But, no, placing his own ambition and comfort above the well-being of the people, Wellstone pushed honor and all other considerations aside in pursuit of continued power at the federal level.
The Chicken Littles of left-leaning politics -some sincere, some not-are shouting that the sky is falling because Minnesota Greens have the audacity to challenge the myth of Wellstone’s indispensability and the DFL’s sense of entitlement. We seem not to care that some people who might otherwise vote for Wellstone (or Coleman) as the lesser-of-two-evils will end up voting for McGaa because they like him best. Yes, Greens could spoil everything…if everything were not already spoiled. I say, Let’s try more democracy for a change instead of less. And let’s put away our third-grade mentalities and act like grown-ups. Taking a larger view of the world, and of history, we can see that it makes little difference whether Paul Wellstone remains in the Senate or not. His record is just not that distinguished. Despite his grassroots background and exciting campaign in 1990, he became a practitioner of the same old crap. Instead of recognizing value in life beyond the Beltway, he’s launched a gratuitous, unprincipled, and selfish third campaign.
I’m guessing that Senator Wellstone is surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who enjoy the high life in D.C. and want to retain a foothold in their fiefdom of power. They’re not going to tell him it’s time to go home. The union bosses, self-anointed demographic leaders, and direct-mail fearmongers who enjoy rubbing elbows with the famous and powerful aren’t going to tell him he should keep a promise made in the heat of a campaign. Barbra Streisand isn’t going to tell him he needs to play by the rules of average Minnesotans.
Term limits can be discussed in fancy historical and theoretical ways. The ill effects of entrenched power can be noted, ranging from negative personality traits to increased policy deficiencies. But regular rotation in office-whether self-imposed or voter-imposed-isn’t hard to understand. It’s really quite simple. Most of us learned it as kids, when our parents told us, “You’ve had your turn. Now you have to let someone else have a turn.” Or, in the more blunt phrasing of one kid to another: “Quit hogging it!”
Despite the irritation it occasionally causes for defenders of the status quo, we still have elections every now and then. In Minnesota, we even have more than just the two old parties on the ballot. We have a choice. Ed McGaa is offering something different. We know all about Wellstone, but who’s this McGaa guy? An enrolled Oglala Sioux. A true American patriot. A person who reveres the earth. A peace-seeking veteran. A down-to-earth attorney. A memorable author. A man of his word. Ed is offering something different…and better. This November, it will be up to those of us who vote to deliver the message no one else wants to give: “Paul, you’ve had your turn…”
Jeff Taylor has a PhD in political science from the University of Missouri and has been active in the Green Party since 1987. , He’s a member of the Olmsted County (MN) Green Party.