Remembering Paul Wellstone--and Learning From Him

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JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 25, 2010

Remembering Paul Wellstone--and Learning From Him

Ezra Klein reminds us that Paul Wellstone died eight years ago today, with a link to his tribute. It's worth reading, as is a remembrance that TNR published a few days after Wellstone's death:

In March 1977, The New Republic ran a short dispatch about a protracted labor dispute in North Carolina. The author noted the basic injustice of the situation (over 1,500 textile workers had voted to organize a union, but the company was refusing to negotiate) as well as its apparent hopelessness (the company, a notoriously successful union-buster, could drag out litigation for years). But the author suggested that the workers might ultimately prevail anyway because they were organizing a national boycott of the company's products and were determined to see the fight through. The author was Paul Wellstone, then a professor at Carleton College, and the article captured two of the qualities that made him such an asset to American politics in later years: his heartfelt commitment to the underdog and his eternal optimism that, with sufficiently energetic organizing, the underdog could win. As a two-term senator from Minnesota, Wellstone was a relentless champion of terribly unfashionable, yet terribly worthy, causes such as the progressive tax code and universal health insurance. And while Wellstone's path at times diverged sharply from this magazine's, he delivered his opinions with a candor wholly anachronistic in the modern U.S. Congress. Indeed, Wellstone's two most famous dissents--his vote against welfare reform in 1996 and his vote against war with Iraq this month--both took place on the eve of bitterly contested elections in which he seemed sharply at odds with prevailing public opinion. Yet after those votes, when others would tell Wellstone that he was being brave, he would shrug: What else could he do but speak his mind and hope that his constituents respected him for it? Minnesota voters validated that judgment once when they returned him to office in 1996 and seemed on the verge of doing so again when Wellstone's plane crashed last week, killing all aboard. The tragedy elicited mourning from across the political spectrum, as well it should have: Wellstone brought to the business of politics a seriousness of purpose, a stubborn inquisitiveness, and a sense of morality all too rare today. His presence will be missed far beyond the U.S. Senate chamber and long after his untimely passing.

The item notes a divergence between Wellstone's views and the magazine's institutional posture. And that was certainly the case, particularly at that moment in time. But my own views were, and remain, a lot closer to Wellstone's.

I can't find the longer, more personal tribute to Wellstone I wrote the day after his passing. (It's lost somewhere in the electronic archives.) But, as I recall, it noted that Wellstone was the ultimate optimist: He believed that, through organizing, progressives really could change the world for the better.

It wasn't easy to believe those things in the days after Wellstone's death, and not simply because liberals had lots such a clear, tireless voice. Within two weeks, Republicans won the midterm elections, winning not just Wellstone's vacant seat but taking control of the entire Senate, giving the party unified control of the government. But time would prove that Wellstone's instincts were correct. Liberals hunkered down and, thanks in no small part to successful organizing, Democrats managed within a few years to take control of Congress and later the White House. 

And liberals did more than just change elections. During the later stages of his political career, Wellstone's signature cause was mental health parity, so that people with psychiatric illness got the same level of financial protection as people with physical illness. In a move that surprised some of his critics but nobody who knew him well, Wellstone had teamed up with a Republican, New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, whose daughter suffered from schizophrenia.

In 1996, the two co-sponsored a major parity bill that began to put mental and physical illness on an equal footing. But the law had huge loopholes and, almost immediately, the two began working on a successor law. They ran into resistance from employers, insurers, and plenty of conservative Republicans. But the measure finally became law in 2008, when the Democratic Congress passed and President Bush signed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.

Wellstone wasn't alive to see that day, but the law bears his name. It's a fitting tribute--as well as a reminder that political causes can survive setbacks, even major ones. That's something to keep in mind next week, as the election returns roll in.

Update: I revised the item to distinguish a bit more clearly between liberals and Democrats.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, paul wellstone

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