Two weeks after being elected to the US Senate, Norm Coleman is standing before the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council doing what he does best, talking “folks” out of one side of his mouth and stroking the corporate wish list out of the other. The Agri-Growth Council includes the biggest players in Minnesota agribusiness, familiar names like Land O’Lakes, Hormel Foods and Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the world, the nation’s second-largest beef packer and one of Coleman’s biggest campaign contributors.
“The folks who live off the land are the original conservationists,” he says, in what is billed as his first postelection policy speech. The nod to the yeoman farmer is a segue into a theme a lot closer to the heart and pocketbook of most of the assembled than living off the land. “I will be a passionate advocate,” he says, “to make sure that regulation is based on sound science.”
Norm Coleman, the voters’ choice to replace the late Paul Wellstone, is the man of many faces who launched his political career as a bullhorn-wielding protester and student government leader at Hofstra University and has been moving to the right ever since. Handpicked by the Bush Administration to run against Wellstone, he is likely to be a dependable Bush ally where it counts most: on regressive tax cuts; war and money for national defense; “privatization,” whether the context is Social Security or getting rid of unionized government employees; and on issues related to energy, the environment and regulation. He is also likely, with great fanfare, to part ways with the Administration on occasional specifics, like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His position on ANWR was elusive during the Senate campaign, but seemed to settle on “Not now, maybe later.”
Democrats in Minnesota have learned the hard way: It’s a mistake to underestimate this man’s ambition or his proficiency at political calculation. On social issues, Coleman has aligned himself with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. Democrats had hoped that would create some difficulties for him during the campaign: How could he get votes from prochoice suburban Republican women without alienating the religious right that he’d been nurturing for most of the past decade? But Coleman is not a man easily squeezed by such dilemmas, as he ably demonstrated during a late-summer candidate debate with Wellstone at the Minnesota State Fair. Nor is he averse to wielding his own private third rail on the abortion issue, despite the unfathomable grief that must lie behind it. Wellstone at one point noted that Coleman prided himself on his ability to get things done and asked him what he intended to do about the abortion issue if he got elected. Coleman replied, as he did later to great effect when the topic came up during his debate with Walter Mondale, that he had lost two young children as the result of a genetic disease, and his opposition to abortion was a deeply held personal belief. But, he added, belief should be separated from what he would do as senator.
Wellstone forged ahead. “My question was, Norm, not about your deep personal beliefs. You signed a voter guide last week in which you said you support the complete and immediate reversal of Roe v. Wade. I wanted to ask you how as a senator you intend to do that. You didn’t answer that question.” He never did answer it. But it’s hard to imagine a Bush Supreme Court Justice nominee whom Coleman would not support.