What We Can Learn from Paul Wellstone (Really)
He was all the way to the left, but he believed in honest debate.


Michael Tanner

Several years ago, at the height of the debate over Pres. George W. Bush’s proposal for Social Security reform, I was invited to deliver a talk on the merits of personal accounts to a group of retired federal employees. This was not a group predisposed to my message, and, as I began to speak, the crowd became unruly. There were boos, chants, shouts — some of them obscene. Crumpled papers were thrown at the stage. Things were on the verge of getting out of hand.

Then the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.), who had earlier delivered the event’s keynote address, came out on stage and admonished the crowd, calling for quiet, and insisting that I had a right to be heard. When things had quieted down, he turned to me and said, “Give them your best shot.”

In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Arizona and some of the reaction to it, I think back upon Senator Wellstone’s actions and see two important and relevant lessons (beyond the fact that even Democratic liberals can use firearms metaphors). One would have to have searched long and hard to find any issue that Senator Wellstone and I agreed on. We certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye about Social Security reform. Yet the senator clearly believed that people would benefit from vigorous but civil debate.

Both sides of that equation are important. Debate should be vigorous. This country faces serious problems, and there are profound disagreements about how to solve those problems. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have very different beliefs, sincerely and deeply held, about the role and nature of government, how it should be involved in the economy and our personal lives. Those differences cannot be papered over. Not all answers lie in the mushy middle.

Already, some are using this tragedy to try to delegitimize opinions that they disagree with. Paul Krugman, for example, has somehow managed to tie the shooting to opposition to the health-care bill. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) took a similar tack, noting that the bill to repeal Obamacare is called the Repeal the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act. “I’m not suggesting that the name of that one piece of legislation somehow led to the horror of this weekend — but is it really necessary to put the word ‘killing’ in the title of a major piece of legislation?” Pingree wrote in The Huffington Post. Writing in Slate, liberal columnist Jacob Weisberg blames the killings on “anti-government” ideology, drawing a straight line from believing that some government actions are “illegitimate” to murder.