Wellstone plans to run to win, no matter how slim his chances

July 27, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Nobody seems to have told Paul Wellstone, the low-profile second-term Democratic senator from Minnesota contemplating a long-shot presidential bid in 2000, that liberalism is dead, and public confidence in activist government along with it.

While leading Republicans continue, rather successfully, to demonize the philosophy of strong benevolent government as the root of all political evil, and President Clinton rolls along as a self-styled New Democrat, Mr. Wellstone is showing no reluctance to offer himself as a second prophet of that much-maligned liberal gospel.

Nor is he hesitating to suggest that there's nothing wrong with American politics that can't be cured by a reawakened electorate of the sort that fired the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the women's movement that surfaced on its heels.

Skeptics will dismiss Mr. Wellstone as a mere echo of the bleeding-hearts politics of those earlier years, personified by such Democrats as Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But the Minnesotan continues to preach the litany of the left with a missionary zeal.

At a Democratic Party training seminar in grass-roots politics in Iowa earlier this month, he called the attendees "my heroes because grass-roots organizers like you won the eight-hour day. Grass-roots organizers like you won civil rights for women and for people of color. And grass-roots organizers like you ended the Vietnam war."

Mr. Wellstone obviously hopes to rekindle the commitment of local political activists in a similar crusade that can ignite his prospective presidential campaign, in spite of the absence of any such conspicuous national unrest of the sort that fired those earlier movements for societal change. In his home state of Minnesota, he achieved just that in 1990 in winning election and re-election in 1996, both times with heavy grass-roots organizing.

The words Mr. Wellstone uses are his own, but close your eyes and you can hear HHH, RFK and LBJ: "How can we live in the richest, most affluent country in the world, at the peak of its economic performance, and still hear the Republicans tell us that we cannot provide a good education for every child, that we cannot provide good health care for all of our citizens and that we cannot at least ensure that every child comes to kindergarten ready to learn?"

Mr. Wellstone has been reciting this sermon for the last two years in travels in the Mississippi Delta and other pockets of poverty, some of them previously visited by Robert Kennedy. But Kennedy made his pilgrimages at a time of great social ferment and growing concern about the plight of society's downtrodden, and he had a charisma bathed in nostalgia for a return of Camelot.

Still, the college professor turned senator from Minnesota is undeterred, at the risk of being dismissed as Pollyannaish. "Politics," he told the trainees at one point, "is not just about power and money games. Politics can be about the improvement of people's lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice. . . . Politics is what we create, by what we do, by what we hope for, and by what we dare to imagine."

"Message" politicians have been known to launch presidential campaigns essentially to gain a wider platform for their views. Mr. Wellstone insists, however, that if he runs he will run to win. Considering the skepticism and even cynicism assumed to dominate political audiences today, he is certain to generate more than his share of snickers. But like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Mr. Wellstone seems impervious to the doubters.

The last time a pure liberal sought the Democratic nomination, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa in 1992, he was quickly flattened, in worse economic times.

But Mr. Harkin's flame did not burn as brightly as Mr. Wellstone's does. It may also be summarily snuffed out in 2000, but in the meantime the intense Minnesotan continues to fuel it with the old rhetoric of government with a heart.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/27/98

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