During my days as Texas agriculture commissioner, a farmer pointed out to me that you can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed. I remembered the farmer’s pithy observation when thinking recently about our departed friend Paul Wellstone, for he was a particularly productive political seed, and we’ll be harvesting the bounty of his work for a long time. Much has been written about Paul as a model for Democratic gutsiness–his principled stands for example, against George W.’s tax giveaways to the rich and against Bush’s knee-jerk Iraq attack. But Paul made another contribution to modern-day progressive politics that might be even more fructiferous.
Paul showed that grassroots matters. Indeed, it was central to his electoral strategy, not only in his underfunded, lovably quirky first campaign but all the way through his last. In a time when the prevailing wisdom of nearly all national Democratic pols is that “strategy” amounts to grabbing all the corporate bribe money you can get, then throwing all of it at the television screen, Paul put an unheard-of 40 percent of his 2002 campaign budget of $10 million into recruiting, training, mobilizing and nurturing a massive army of door-to-door volunteers.
Practicing What He Preached
Wellstone, who had long been a community organizer and had taught the strategy of political movements at Carleton College, put his high-touch organizing experience into practice from the start of his first campaign and never stopped. “It’s the key to winning,” says Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett.
Organizational oomph adds percentage points, and it was this extra that propelled Paul to the Senate–twice elected as an unabashedly liberal, populist, Jewish, exuberant, short professor from the Lutheran heartland of tall, reserved Minnesota. And when his plane went down two weeks before last fall’s vote, he was six points up over the tall and toothy Republican, Norm Coleman, whom Bush and Cheney had handpicked and financed, and was poised with 5,000 trainee and field-tested volunteers eager to complete his action plan on Election Day. He was going to win.
Paul’s strategy began with the exact opposite tack from that currently advocated by the Democratic Leadership Council and most Democratic campaign consultants, who say the party’s candidates should target moderate-to-conservative swing voters. Instead, Wellstone had a laser focus on his base–working-class people, small farmers, students, poor people, women, people of color, immigrants and so forth. Organize this base, expand it and turn it out was his plan.
Contrary to corporate-driven, mealy-mouthed DLC types, Paul understood that the key to turnout is turn on. He pounded a consistent message of economic populism that let ordinary folks know he was on their side, that he was the candidate battling the insurance companies and the oil industry.
Not only did this excite and rally base supporters, but–lo and behold–it also struck a chord with suburbanites, moderate Republicans and other persuadables who also don’t like lobbyists writing all the laws. As a bonus, his “politics of conviction” appealed to voters who didn’t generally agree with Paul’s stands but were impressed that in this age of manufactured candidates, he stood for something and did so forcefully and enthusiastically.