Politics & Policy

Wellstone Democrats

What we saw at the "memorial service."

Republicans are mean but sober-minded; Democrats are dopey but kind. There’s no need to dwell or expand on these stereotypes because everyone knows they exist. Everyone also knows that while there’s certainly a kernel of truth to the stereotype, its utility in dealing with actual people in the real world isn’t all that useful. After all, we’ve all met some achingly dumb Republicans and some astoundingly bitter and nasty Democrats. But at the national level, these stereotypes are useful for defining the broad differences between the so-called mommy and daddy parties. And, from that perspective, the Democrats on display at Paul Wellstone’s memorial service represented everything I personally find distasteful, disagreeable, and downright disgusting about the Democratic party (and for similar reasons, I have no doubt that this column will represent much of what Democrats find unpleasant about conservatives).

Let’s just get the obligatory, though sincere, caveat out of the way. I respected Paul Wellstone. He was by all accounts a decent person in his private life and honorable in his public one. He inspired loyalty from his colleagues and respect from his opponents. His death — and the deaths of the others in that plane crash — were certainly tragic.

Everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, say that Wellstone’s most-admirable quality was that he was a tireless worker for what he believed in. That’s fine. Doggedness and determination are wonderful things when in the pursuit of the noble and good. But, it should be remembered that doggedness and determination alone aren’t necessarily admirable qualities. Serial killers and murderous dictators are also dogged in their determination to see their wills done. Hitler prioritized trainloads of Jews bound for death camps ahead of needed trainloads of war materiel bound for the front in his dogged pursuit of what he considered to be right. Saddam Hussein chooses not to feed his people and risk war thanks to his willingness to stick to his convictions.

Now, it would be wrong to compare Paul Wellstone to Hitler or Hussein and I am not doing that. What I am doing is pointing out that conviction without a moral context or motor is merely a white-knuckled grip on an idea without paying heed to what you grip or why. After all, grabbing a sword by the handle is wise, grabbing it by the blade is folly, and normally we do not think the fingerless fool is as proficient as the swordsman and we do not judge the man who uses the sword for murder to be as good as the man who uses the sword to prevent it.

This distinction is not only lost on the Democrats, but they actually celebrate their ignorance of it as a defining virtue of their party. In 2000, Hillary Clinton successfully convinced voters that the campaign should be over “who is more concerned about the issues New Yorkers care about” and not about such petty issues as ideas or qualifications. In other words, the question is not over who is right or wrong, but over who has the stronger feelings. In the Democrats’ world, we would choose a plumber over a surgeon to transplant our kidneys so long as the plumber “passionately believed” that your surgery should go well and the surgeon was blasé about it.”

Not only is this ideological obsession with passion intellectually insipid, the Democrats lack both the imagination and the intellectual consistency to praise it in their opponents. When first elected, Paul Wellstone bragged that he “despised” Jesse Helms but also that he wanted to be known as “the liberal Jesse Helms” — and the liberals loved him for it. But this aspiration was hypocritical on its face since it was Helms’s tenacity as much as his ideology that liberals so detested.

Indeed, liberals consider “inflexibility” on the part of conservatives to be at the core of their evilness. When the quintessential Democratic intellectual, Anthony Lewis, retired — finally — from the New York Times he revealed his one great insight into the nature of man. In what was arguably one of the most staggeringly idiotic comments ever offered in the New York Times, Lewis said that “certainty” was “the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.”

Now, like finding a steamer trunk full of inane and offensive knickknacks, one could spend all day unpacking the profane obtuseness of this assertion. But, suffice it to say, if liberals like Lewis truly believe “certainty” is the enemy of “decency and humanity” then they would have to add Wellstone — and Teddy Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other gods of the Democratic pantheon — to their list of overly “certain” monsters as well, right alongside bin Laden and John Ashcroft.

It is obviously true that Paul Wellstone fought tenaciously for what he believed in. But it is also true that if he’d been successful in everything he wanted to accomplish, this country would be inarguably the worse for it. Any politician can fight for a better world, indeed most of them think they are. Just because Wellstone was more convinced of his rightness than many of his colleagues doesn’t make him a better senator and it doesn’t transform his many bad ideas into good ones.


I have my own theory as to why Democrats celebrate “passionate intensity,” as Yeats would say, so much. Intellectually, the old liberal project is exhausted. Its arguments do not persuade, its numbers do not add up, its aims no longer seem achievable or worth the costs required. But some liberals, many of them hobbled by nostalgia, refuse to believe that this is true. They loved the romance and excitement of the New Deal or the Great Society so much, that they continue to sit in a nearly empty theater refusing to believe that the movie’s over — even though the credits have rolled and the lights have come on. It’s just an intermission, they insist. The second half will be even better — just you wait and see!

And because theirs is a romantic vision of “what could be,” they continue to treat has-beens as movie idols — which is why it is so fitting that they replace the “new voice” of Paul Wellstone with the quavering tones of Walter Mondale, whose speeches almost sound as if they contain the pops and skips of a worn-out LP album. As we’d already seen in New Jersey, the Democratic bench is deep with old men who still fit into their uniforms but have no place on the field.

Sure, it makes sense that the Democratic mascot is a donkey, a stubborn beast that will not move toward progress, even when the progress is for its own good. But an even-better symbol would be of the doctor who gives CPR to a corpse. That is why liberals who, for example, “work tirelessly” for nationalized healthcare are such heroes, even though many liberals don’t want or wouldn’t use such a system if it arrived. That is why Bill Clinton was so successful with liberals when he whined, “I’ve been working so hard.” As with his wife’s supporters, his base cared less about the ideas than his concern for them.

But it should be noted that unlike Hillary, Bill Clinton was no Wellstone liberal. Bill cared about power and attention and he played on the emotions of his base to get both. Wellstone was indeed about principle and he used power and attention to advance it. That is why it made so much sense for Bill Clinton to be in the audience of that repugnant rally they called a memorial service. Like some perverse “Where’s Waldo” drawing, wherever large groups of Democrats congregate, you know if you can find Bill Clinton in the picture they will behave like jackasses.

That is what was so offensive about that rally: It shamelessly used Wellstone’s death for partisan advantage while its organizers cynically accused their opponents of doing precisely that. Blaming others for something awful you’ve done is perhaps the defining attribute of Bill Clinton and his legacy on the Democratic party. Wellstone did many good things out of principle — including work with Jesse Helms, a man he grew to befriend, on human rights in China. But he will now be invoked by Democrats everywhere simply to get out the vote, beat up Republicans, and raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

In short, so long as they hold onto the Senate, the Clinton Democrats — who often found Wellstone’s principles inconvenient — will find him more useful dead than alive. They will rewrite the story of his life to fit any cause they choose — much as they have done with other Democratic martyrs like John and Robert Kennedy (a Cold War anti-Communist and the attorney general who personally authorized the bugging of Martin Luther King, respectively). Wellstone’s distinctiveness and honesty will melt in a warm pool of mass-marketed nostalgia. And, if Republicans complain, Democrats will simply charge insensitivity and laugh all the way to the bank.

But don’t mind me, I’m just being mean, like a typical Republican.


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