The Ghost of Politics Past

The Ghost of Politics Past
Instead of Playing Desperate Defense,
the Democrats Might Try Searching Their Souls,
Asking Simple Questions with Complex Answers
by Anna Quindlen

I miss Paul Wellstone. It is not that the senator from Minnesota was liberal, although he was, or smart, although he was that, too. It was that when he said he was going to do something, he did it, and because he believed it was the right thing, not because he'd been bought and paid for by lobbyists and pressure groups. His last major legislative act was to vote against the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq. He was the sole Democrat in the Senate facing a significant election challenge to do so, but he told a reporter, "I'm not 38, I'm 58. And at this point in my life, I'm not making any decision that I don't believe in."

A month later, Senator Wellstone was dead in the crash of a chartered campaign plane. I like to think that at least he passed over carrying a clear conscience.

And while I don't believe in ghosts, I hope the memory of Paul Wellstone will haunt the Democrats as they go about the very public business of finding themselves in the wake of their November defeat. Not because they will necessarily embrace his positions, but because they ought to assume his legacy of passionate conviction.

If the Democratic Party still believes in any of the things it once stood for—a living wage for working people, equal access regardless of race or gender, freedom from overbearing government intrusion, help for the needy—then the future of the party alone should not be its primary concern. Leading Democrats should be meeting to chart the future of the nation. In the hole economically, unable to compete as manufacturers with Asia, enmeshed in a war in the Middle East, fearful of terrorist attacks and afflicted with the anomie of people concerned that they leave the next generation with the dream of nothing grander than a higher credit limit—we are in need of the long view.

Authentic leadership is in short supply. Republicans would have it that the president provides it. I don't see it. This is a purported regular guy who is the scion of privilege and whose resume owes more to the family tree than the grindstone. A fiscal conservative who has blown the deficit and government spending sky-high. A candidate who said he was not interested in nation-building undertaking it aggressively. It all reminds me of the punch line to that old joke: who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? Look at the upcoming Inaugural, close to $40 million worth of parties, pageantry and canapes paid for by corporate largesse and said to be in honor of our troops, troops whose families are struggling to get by. A triumph of style over substance.

Yet I suspect the Democratic Party is even now considering which potential candidate has a similarly invulnerable Q rating. Image, tactics, communication: politics has increasingly become a prizefight taking place while a conflagration rages outside. Did the Democrats learn nothing from that war resolution, on which most of them played possum, trading human life and political principle for poll numbers? Later, when the tide had turned, when the Iraqis who the administration insisted would welcome us with flowers threw bombs instead, party leaders were left with a vote they couldn't even justify. They had not compromised, they had capitulated.

There is an alternative to capitulation. It is unconditional authenticity. That's how Democrat John Kerry came to consider asking Republican John McCain to join his ticket. It was the ultimate choice of character over ideology, the yen for a guy Americans admire as the real deal. Instead of playing desperate defense, the Democrats might try searching their souls, asking themselves simple questions with complex answers. What really matters to me? What are the principles on which I will not compromise? If my campaign plane should go down, what legacy would I leave behind? (Hint: it sure shouldn't be making the Democrats more like the Republicans.)

Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, reflected upon his defeat in the 1994 conservative GOP rout in his book "Reason to Believe." Ten years old, it is nevertheless an apt playbook for the Democratic Party in the years to come. "In those instances where interests collide," he writes, "the flash points where those who have a little feel threatened by those who have less, we Democrats have not worked hard enough at finding ways to harmonize the competing interests." He also skillfully dissects the opposition: "When they shift from propaganda to policy their proposals are inadequate and in some cases demonstrably harmful. For the most part, they seek to evade the nation's problems rather than to solve them."

The success of America, he writes, has grown out of "being better than our worst impulses." There's a goal to steer your ship by. And never mind holding fingers to the wind. That combination of spit and hot air never amounts to much in the long run; real leadership, the kind that led to the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act, is often a matter of doing what's unpopular. Party strategists may privately complain that that's no way to win. But as Paul Wellstone seemed to understand, particularly with that last, potentially politically disastrous vote, there are worse things than losing.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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