Paul Wellstone was a movement progressive. From the farm crisis days when he was organizing rural Americans to fight back against corporate agribusiness to the last days of his final campaign, Wellstone worked to forge a left that was muscular enough to win elections, to govern and to bend the arc of history toward justice.
But the senator from Minnesota was not afraid to stand alone, if that was what principle demanded. Just days before his death on October 25, 2002, he was the only US senator facing a seriously competitive reelection race to vote against authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to launch an invasion of Iraq.
Ten years after America lost the great progressive populist in a plane crash that claimed his remarkable wife, Sheila, their daughter, Marcia, two pilots, a driver and two campaign staffers, it is Wellstone’s courageous anti-war vote that is best recalled. And rightly so. Paul called me when he announced that he would oppose the Bush-Cheney administration’s rush to war. He was upbeat, proud and confident. He knew he had taken what Washington insiders believed to be a political risk, but he was betting on the common decency and the common sense of Minnesotans. And the polls circulating at the time of his death confirmed Wellstone’s political instincts were every bit as sound in 2002 as they had been in 1990—when he bet that a quirky, low-budget campaign run from the back of a green school bus and relying on a television ad that mimicked Michael Moore’s anti-corporate documentary Roger and Me could unseat a millionaire Republican senator.
That was Paul’s genius. He understood that, sometimes, perhaps most times, Americans respect a stand on principle. And he recognized that time often turns the isolated concern of the true believer into popular sentiment. Paul disliked the suggestion that he was a “maverick.” He might break with presidents of his own party, with Democratic leaders in the Senate, but he did not do so for headlines. He did so because he felt it was morally and practically necessary for what he called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” to be heard.
This was particularly the case when it came to defending the interests of the working poor. Paul did not anger easily. But he truly, totally, despised the notion that budgets could, or should, be balanced on the backs of the poor and the working class. When the privileged exploited their economic advantages and lobbying connections to write the laws of the land, Wellstone was more than willing to stand alone in opposition.
That was the case in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Senate was considering bankruptcy law “reforms” designed by bankers and credit company CEOs to take away protections that were essential to the working poor. Wellstone fought the corporatists and the politicos to make the law more humane and responsible. And when his fellow senators refused to rewrite it, he rejected it. Ninety-seven senators voted on September 23, 1998, for a noxious version of bankruptcy reform. One senator, Wellstone, voted “no.” (There were more “no” votes in the House, coming from, among others, Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders and Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown, both future senators.)