Memory Lapse

By

When Paul Wellstone's plane crashed in the Minnesota wilderness
Friday morning, he was in the midst of the nastiest Senate race in
the country. He had long been regarded as the most vulnerable
Senate Democrat, and the president personally recruited his
opponent, Norm Coleman. Every big special interest group in the
United States was dumping money into the race on both sides. "You
had a ferocious campaign here," says the University of Minnesota's
Larry Jacobs. "This was like Ali-Frazier in the fifteenth round."
And then, with Wellstone's death, the whole thing came to a
screeching halt.At least that's what both sides claimed. "We have suspended all
campaign activities," Coleman said. Democrats promised the same.
But the truth is, the campaigns never really stopped. Watching the
parties joust in the days after Wellstone's death, one can only
come to the grim conclusion that Republicans and Democrats have
mastered the politics of dead candidates. Two years ago in
Missouri, Republicans silently watched as the widow of Democratic
candidate Mel Carnahan rode the electorate's emotions to victory
over John Ashcroft. From that experience the parties learned that a
prolonged mourning period boosts the candidate who champions the
dead and prevents her opponent from campaigning at all. So this
time around Democrats did two things: They sought to stretch out
the period of grieving for Wellstone by delaying Walter Mondale's
formal entry into the race; and they are now defining his campaign
as an extension of that mourning process. Republicans, meanwhile,
have tried to honor Wellstone, even as they claim that Mondale
isn't the Wellstone stand-in he claims to be. The most dishonest
part of this post-tragedy spectacle is that both parties insist
that this sort of maneuvering ended with Wellstone's death.

In truth, Coleman's campaign never came close to shutting down. His
first instinct was to try to capture some of Wellstone's posthumous
glow by recasting their bitter campaign as a high-minded affair--as
if he might, in a strange way, be considered Wellstone's true
successor. "He made me a better candidate," Coleman said Sunday.
But that's been a tough sell, given the brutality of the campaign
before Wellstone died. Republicans, after all, had practically
argued that Wellstone was fighting for Al Qaeda. One ad accused him
of cutting "anti- terrorism funding" and money for the "B-2 used in
Afghanistan." The commercial ended ominously: "[A]sk Wellstone,
`Who are you fighting for?'" When it became clear that Mondale
would replace Wellstone, the GOP's effort to tie themselves to the
dead liberal took an even stranger turn--they argued that Mondale
couldn't be Wellstone's true successor because he was too
conservative. Of course Coleman isn't responsible for Newt
Gingrich's false accusation last Sunday that Mondale supports
privatizing Social Security, but Republicans back in Minnesota
echoed the tactic: As the state GOP chairman harrumphed this week,
Mondale, far from reflecting Wellstone's legacy, "has served on the
corporate boards of multinationals and pharmaceutical companies."

The GOP's overnight opposition research was only the beginning of
its post- death politics. Two days after the crash, Republicans
challenged the former vice president to a series of debates. They
conducted and leaked two polls showing a close race. And Coleman
quietly cut new campaign commercials. Senator Harry Reid spoke for
furious Democrats when he complained, three days after the crash,
that Republicans are "conducting polls while they're gathering the
bodies out of the woods in Minnesota."

But whatever moral authority Democrats had as the grieving party
soon evaporated. Sorrow gave way to perverse excitement that
Wellstone's death could help accomplish their central goal, keeping
control of the Senate. The day after the crash, Al Gore picked up
the theme at a fund-raiser in Maine. Commenting on Bush's response
to corporate fraud, Gore said, "I'm telling you it is a sham. If
Paul Wellstone were here he'd say, 'Vote Democratic and stand up
for the little guy.'" Campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Carl
McCall in New York, Hillary Clinton argued, "I see a direct
connection between our loss on Friday ... and this campaign that
Carl is waging." In New Jersey, Democratic Senate candidate Frank
Lautenberg went much further: "Out of respect for Paul Wellstone,
all of the seats that are under contest right now have to go
Democrat in order to protect the interests that he had." Democrats
have even begun talking about the "Wellstone factor," an energizing
of the party's liberal base that could help swing close Senate
races in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. In an Iowa
appearance with Senator Tom Harkin, Senate Majority Leader Tom
Daschle spoke of a "new chemistry" in the electorate and said, "The
spirit of Paul Wellstone lives on in Tom Harkin's heart." The
audience cheered. (In truth, now a week before the election, polls
offer scant evidence that the "new chemistry" is having much of an
impact anywhere but in Minnesota. And there, the net effect may be
that both parties have been equally energized.)

Republicans were certainly fired up by Tuesday night's tribute to
Wellstone-- broadcast live across the state--which turned into a
fiercely partisan rally. The senator's longtime friend and campaign
treasurer, Rick Kahn, made it clear that there was no distinction
between honoring Wellstone and defeating Coleman. "We can redeem
the sacrifice of his life if you help us win this election for Paul
Wellstone," he thundered. Governor Jesse Ventura actually walked
out, saying he "felt violated," and an ensuing backlash forced
Democrats to apologize for the tone of the event.

But the lesson of Carnahan has been fully internalized: Democrats
have learned that championing the cause of the dead is powerful;
Republicans have learned how to coopt the dead candidate's legacy
as well. Both sides agree it's worth exploiting a tragedy in order
to win.

By Ryan Lizza

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