Paul Wellstone

Ours is sometimes an age that seeks to avoid honest confrontations. Edges are blurred, fine distinctions overlooked, and disagreements avoided. Bi-partisanship has come to mean pleasant accommodation, rather then unprincipled compromise. Principles have sharp, honed edges, they incorporate important distinctions, and they compel us, at times, to disagree noisily. There are times for compromises and splitting differences, but on important issues a healthy polity requires principled, forceful, and joyful partisanship. It is, therefore, with great sadness that we mark the untimely passing of the Senate’s most statistically partisan member, Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota.

The dictionary suggests that the defining quality of a partisan is that he is so biased that he cannot not weigh things equitably. This is far too narrow a definition. Partisanship can degenerate into blind allegiance, but in its highest form, partisanship implies fervently held beliefs and principles. Wellstone was one of the few true Liberals left in the Senate. He gladly advocated socialized health care, opposed President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, avoided tax cuts he feared would hobble his vision of an energetic federal government, fought the moderating influences of the Democratic Leadership Council, voted against the Gulf War in 1991 and recently voted against authorizing President George W. Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. While others hid behind labels of “moderate” or “progressive,” Wellstone was an unapologetic “Liberal” with a capital-L.

It is hard to know who will assume Wellstone’s place as the Liberal conscience for the Senate. Senator Edward Kennedy’s corpulence is too easy to use as metaphor for bloated government, Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey is frankly too wealthy to possess the common populist touch, while Senator Hillary Clinton’s ambition is too unseemly. Perhaps, Tom Harkin of Iowa is the logical candidate; though he would be the first to concede that he lacks Wellstone’s cheerful energy.

Wellstone has often been called the first 1960’s radical in the US Senate. There is merit to this proposition, but he differed from many 1960s radicals in an important respect. He loved America and Americans. Wellstone sought to evoke the best in Americans. He did not become an angry scold. If America was not what he wanted it to be, Wellstone believed America was not living up to its ideals and its callings. It just needed to be nudged and cajoled into the right direction. Other radicals would see a problem like poverty in America and conclude that it was just one more piece of evidence that the United States was an irremediably despicable, racist, and evil country. Wellstone was so convinced of the goodness of average Americans, he believe they only needed to be introduced to a problem and their consciences would do the rest. He wanted a government as good as its people.

In a recent, television interview with Bill O’Reilly, Wellstone was asked about how much effort the United States should make in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. O’Reilly was concerned that the money would be squandered. Though Wellstone argued that it is in the US interest to provide economic aid to win the support of Afghani people, his first response was to remind us shamelessly that America was a great and “good” country. The United States should aid the Afghans, because it was simply the right thing to do. Geopolitics was important, but so is doing the right thing.

Like all people, Wellstone could not always live up to his highest aspirations. After promising constituents that he would only serve two terms, he was running for a third term in the Senate. The Left was upset with Wellstone because his stance against war with Iraq was not as outspoken in 2002 when running for re-election as it was in 1990 and for his vote for the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Jeff Taylor of the Left’s argued that Wellstone was “a case study to use when looking at the corrupting effects of hanging onto power for too long.” That’s far too harsh and reflects precisely the mean-spiritedness that gives partisanship a bad name.

It is only by disagreeing with intelligent and passionate adversaries that we can confidently hone our own arguments. For Conservatives, Paul Wellstone’s intelligent debates provided such an intellectual whetstone. Conservative arguments will be consequently duller. That’s not so bad for a PhD political scientist, who used to playfully point out that he scored less than 800 combined on his math and verbal SATs.

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