Lately, presidential contender Howard Dean has been likening himself to the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Out on the stump, Dean has used a phrase that Wellstone long employed–that we need candidates who “represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Before audiences of progressives and party activists, it is reportedly Governor Dean’s best applause line. No wonder. The Democratic rank and file yearn for populist leadership based on a firm commitment to progressive policies.
Dean acknowledges that his own politics are considerably less “liberal” than Wellstone’s but that he identifies with the senator’s passion and commitment to beliefs. Certainly, Dean’s campaign has many of the trappings of progressive politics. Dean himself is an upstart and outsider, and his call for a grassroots campaign to “take back America” sounds progressive.
But as Wellstone frequently said, it’s not the thought that counts but the deed. So how do the records of the two men compare? Wellstone’s history included both activism and intellectual support for civil rights, and he took that same spirit to his first Senate election and ran against big money in politics. In the Senate, Wellstone stood for economic and social justice. He supported expanding collective-bargaining rights and universal healthcare. He opposed the death penalty because it is inequitably applied to minorities and the poor. And he was the only senator up for re-election to vote against the so-called Welfare Reform Act in 1996, because he believed it punished children and played into stereotypes of single women on welfare. Wellstone also voted no on the October Iraq war resolution, following a lifetime of advocating for peace and for a US role in the world that fostered democracy and used military intervention as a last resort.
While Dean may share some measure of Wellstone’s passion, his record and his agenda are very different. As governor of Vermont, Dean targeted for elimination the public-financing provision of the state’s campaign finance law–a law similar to the one Wellstone pushed in the Senate. In February 2002, Dean said his big donors are given special access. While Wellstone fought for people on welfare, Dean said some welfare recipients “don’t have any self-esteem. If they did, they’d be working” and scaled back Vermont’s welfare program, reducing cash benefits and imposing strict time limits on single mothers receiving welfare assistance.
Dean advocated sending nuclear waste from his state to the poor, mostly Hispanic town of Sierra Blanca, Texas. Wellstone called the proposal “blatant environmental injustice” and fought to delay the measure in the Senate. It ultimately passed but was later determined unsafe. Just last year, Dean proposed deep cuts in Medicaid, which were blocked in his own legislature. Now he calls Representative Dick Gephardt’s healthcare proposal, which would roll back the Bush tax cuts in order to provide a tax credit for employers mandated to deliver health coverage to workers, “a pie-in-the-sky radical revamping of our healthcare system.” Dean has said that a constitutional amendment to balance the budget “wouldn’t be a bad thing” and that the way to balance the federal budget is “for Congress to cut Social Security, move the retirement age to 70 and cut defense, Medicare and veterans’ pensions.” In the name of fiscal conservatism, Dean’s final-year Vermont budget also cut portions of the state’s public education funding. Dean supports the death penalty and as governor was embraced by the NRA. Although he opposed the war on Iraq, his policy on the Middle East is closer, he says, to AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–than to progressives calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.
Dean is not without some redeeming policies–he deserves credit for signing the civil union law in Vermont, for example. But when held up to the progressive standards of a Paul Wellstone, his deeds are sorely lacking.
When I talk to my progressive friends about the Dean record, they often lament, “But that means there is no progressive in this race!” That may be true, although other candidates in deed if not in style have credentials to bring to the table. Carol Moseley-Braun was one of only eleven senators who voted no on welfare reform in 1996. Senator John Kerry was an organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and stood up to what were to become his Senate colleagues and asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last one to die in Vietnam?” And when Kerry is not in a fracas with Dean, he aggressively advocates environmental justice and sound childcare policies (although he supported the 1996 Welfare Reform Act). Both Kerry and Gephardt have strong records of support for collective bargaining, labor organizing and a living wage. Gephardt has offered what is likely to be the first of several proposals on universal healthcare. And Senator John Edwards, despite his money, has as much claim to being a fresh face as Dean. Senator Bob Graham voted with Wellstone against the war on Iraq and Representative Dennis Kucinich, while a recent convert to a pro-choice position, is chair of the House Progressive Caucus.
Progressives must give each of the candidates a thorough look. None may be progressive in my or your terms, but let’s be ready to get behind whoever wins the Democratic nomination, so we can send this hard-right Administration packing. And let’s not let progressive style or language replace progressive substance simply because we no longer have a senator who is one of us.
Paul Wellstone closed his autobiography, The Conscience of a Liberal, with a quote from the famous abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who was once asked, “Wendell, why are you so on fire?” He responded, “I’m on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt.” Since Wellstone’s death, the mountains have grown. Let’s direct our fire toward the ice and not let our desire for leaders with passion get in the way of the need to melt it. I do not yet support a candidate for President. In the end, I will choose one I believe will shine some light–and direct some fire–toward those mountains of ice we must melt.