During the two years when he was exploring a bid for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, Paul Wellstone spent a lot of time trying to figure out how a progressive could get elected to the nation’s top job. He was certain it was possible, as certain as he had been in 1990 that a college professor with almost no money could beat a millionaire incumbent for a Senate seat, as certain as he had been in 1996 that a senator who voted against welfare reform and made himself the number-one target of the Republicans could be re-elected.
But Wellstone did not believe he had it within himself to figure out how to grasp the grail that has eluded men he admired: Jesse Jackson, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Ralph Nader. So, throughout 1997 and 1998, Wellstone traveled the country, not with a stump speech but with a stump question–or more precisely, a set of stump questions. “How do we talk about education in a way that gets us beyond false choices?” he asked teachers. “Don’t you think we should stop paying these subsidies to big corporations and start protecting family farmers who take pride in growing safe, healthy food?” he asked not just farmers but inner-city moms and dads worried about grocery store shelves packed with out-of-date junk food. Years before the Enron scandal, he asked, “Don’t you think people are more concerned about monopolies and the concentration of power in a few hands than most politicians imagine?” Then Wellstone would listen, often holding a hand or clasping a shoulder to emphasize that this senator actually did want an answer. Wellstone augmented his research by studying piles of polling data and poring over political biographies and examinations of the body politic.
By mid-1998, Wellstone was pretty sure he had gotten the answer he needed. It had everything to do, he told me once as we were driving across the upper Midwest, with “putting issues on the table.” Progressives could not win meaningful victories if they confined themselves to a debate over issues and solutions defined by the Heritage Foundation and conservative media. A centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton might win by triangulating the obstacle course set up by the right, but a progressive would need to set up a new course. By putting such issues as US trade policy and corporate corruption–in those pre-Seattle, pre-Enron days–“back on the table,” and by pouring resources into educating and organizing around those issues, an excited Wellstone argued, a progressive presidential candidate could play offense. And, yes, Wellstone wanted to be the party’s quarterback.
As he explained his plan, however, Wellstone shifted painfully in the car seat. Neither of us knew he was suffering from undiagnosed multiple sclerosis. Health concerns led him to decide against a 2000 presidential race. But had Wellstone not been killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, his would almost certainly have been only a temporary exit from presidential politics. After winning re-election as the only Democratic incumbent in a tough race who opposed George Bush’s rush to war on Iraq (and assuming he was well enough to avoid questions about his health), Wellstone would have been in the 2004 presidential competition as a progressive populist with a strategy not to “join the debate” but to win it. As it is, he remains a presence–if not quite the influence he should be–in the contest.