Enter Stage Left


Senator Paul Wellstone bopped into town last week to kick off the New York effort for his nascent presidential campaign, bringing with him high hopes that a legitimately progressive player might finally steal the show on the national political stage. But in this, his Broadway debut, the Minnesotan stumbled and seriously flubbed his lines.

The volunteer recruitment meeting—convened by labor lawyer I. Philip Sipser, a veteran of left-wing Democratic politics, and American Federation of Musicians Local 802 president Bill Moriarity, under the auspices of the Wellstone Presidential Exploratory Committee—drew a respectable crowd of some 170 people to the Musicians’ meeting hall on West 48th Street. It included a healthy labor contingent from half a dozen unions; progressive Democratic activists who’ve peopled previous campaigns, from Eugene McCarthy’s to Jesse Jackson’s to Jerry Brown’s; and a smattering of college kids, most of them from fledgling New York chapters of the New Party. In other words, it was just the kind of audience that would be receptive to a hard-hitting left-populist message designed to turn on the troops.

Yet when Wellstone finally spoke—under the quizzical gaze of Louis Armstrong’s framed portrait—it was in generalities and liberal bromides that left his listeners hungry. As one former

Democratic district leader cracked afterwards, “This crowd was starving for red meat—and he gave ’em egg-drop soup.”

“I only know one way to do this, and that’s to win!” Wellstone told the gathering. But since his chances of snatching the nomination are nil, serious left political activists are posing the question: Can a Wellstone candidacy be the vehicle for breathing new life into the party’s moribund progressive wing? Previous insurgent presidential efforts—like those of Jackson and Brown—failed to leave any permanent institutional residue to carry on organizing. Will Wellstone take his candidacy beyond the personal and prove himself the leader who crystallizes an ongoing movement capable of fighting the takeover of his party by Corporate America? Or, once he loses, will he leave those he has mobilized all dressed up for combat but with nowhere to go?

Wellstone, a Carleton College professor for two decades and longtime grassroots organizer, first won his senate seat in 1990 by defeating a wealthy Republican incumbent with a movement-style field operation. He became a hero to liberals nationally as the only incumbent Democratic senator running for reelection in 1996 to vote against Clinton’s welfare “reform” law. The GOP targeted Wellstone for that vote in a massive, liberal-baiting TV blitz—designed by Arthur Finkelstein, Al D’Amato’s media guru. But Wellstone won handily, once more thanks to his precinct-level volunteer field force.

Wellstone first began taking soundings for a possible presidential bid last year, with forays into early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and an imitation of Robert Kennedy’s famous 1967 “Poverty Tour” that took the Minnesotan from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta. That swing was cut short by a back injury incurred while wrestling—the short, stocky, 53-year-old senator’s favorite sport—but when he resumed crisscrossing the country in February, he found enough people eager for a progressive alternative to the center-right politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore to take the next step. While Wellstone will not formally decide on a presidential bid until after the November midterm elections, he told the New York crowd, “I’m really leaning toward doing it.”

Wellstone’s closest advisers are all steeped in left-liberal Democratic politics. They include former RFK aide Peter Edelman, who resigned from the Clinton administration in protest against the welfare law; author and former JFK aide Richard Goodwin; Robert Borosage, the issues director for Jesse Jackson’s ’88 presidential bid and currently director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a Washington-based liberal policy group; and Jeff Faux, who runs the labor-funded Economic Policy Institute. That’s what makes Wellstone’s toothless performance here so surprising.

A passionate orator who flails his arms and doffs his jacket while speaking, usually winging it without notes, Wellstone eschewed the microphone at the Musicians’ hall, but his content didn’t match his decibel level. “Universal health care should be back on the table in America,” he hollered. No specifics. “Education is going to become the central issue in American politics over the next few years”—a highly debatable assertion that avoids discussion of who holds the power that controls the education system. Referring to his three children and three grandchildren, Wellstone proclaimed the “central value” of his campaign to be that “any infant I hold in my hand—they’re all God’s children,” a pleasant but ultimately meaningless offering.

With the exception of his opposition to privatizing Social Security, this truncated stump speech was programmatically deficient. And the closest Wellstone came to directly challenging the neoconservative politics of Clinton/Gore was when he yelled his mantra that he wants to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

This sort of thing may go down well in Cedar Rapids, but it was pretty weak tea to serve up to a sophisticated audience of activists like the one corralled for him here. The most charitable interpretation one could put on his performance came from a former member of the Democratic National Committee who is an old Wellstone friend: “He didn’t judge the crowd right.” But the only piece of Wellstone literature distributed at the meeting—a fundraising letter for his presidential bid—was equally bland.

Also omitted from Wellstone’s peroration was any mention of local issues meaningful to liberals and progressives—for example, New York City’s Clean Money Clean Elections referendum, which would provide 80 per cent public funding for candidates who agree to stringent limits on contributions and spending (and for which organizers filed enough petition signatures last week to insure it a place on the ballot).

Now, Wellstone is the principal Senate cosponsor—with Massachusetts’s John Kerry—of the proposed national version of Clean Money. Moreover, he can’t be ignorant of the New York ballot question since he spoke for it at a recent fundraiser. Yet not only did Wellstone fail to mention the local referendum entirely, he all but ignored the issue of special interest money in politics, which is a fundamental issue for those who want to break the neoconservative stranglehold on the national Democratic Party.

Even Sipser, the meeting’s organizer, couldn’t conceal his profound disappointment the next day. “I had a discussion with the senator’s office,” Sipser told the Voice. “And I told ’em, it wasn’t good. A large section of the Democratic Party is so influenced by money that they’re like the Republicans. He has to talk about the impact of corporate power on every institution in America, including education. It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’ when the whole politics of the national party have changed—we need him to talk about the fight for the redirection of the Democratic Party. It’s as the leader of that movement that he can define himself and broaden his appeal.”

The question period following Wellstone’s speech yielded little more than his talk. When the senator got a question about how he differed from another putative Democratic presidential candidate, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, he refused to answer it, saying “I’m for the politics of enunciation, not denunciation.”

“Unfortunately, he didn’t manifest either,” commented one labor leader after the speech. “And that’s especially dumb when you’re talking to an audience with such a large labor presence. Gephardt is part of the problem, and on most issues, a captive of traditional special interest politics. Wellstone’s failure to say so not only doesn’t educate anybody, it doesn’t give labor a reason to be for him—especially when Gephardt has been wooing the unions for his own race.”

Not all the reactions to Wellstone’s New York outing were quite so negative—and several of the elected officials present, like Assemblymen Dick Gottfried and Ed Sullivan, made sympathetic (if noncommittal) noises when asked about this presidential candidacy. And the organizers did collect pledges of volunteer support from about half the audience.

But most seemed to agree with Sipser’s assessment: “He’s what we can have, not what we’d like to have. We’ve just gotta push him to be more of a real leader. After all, for the moment, he’s all we’ve got.”