Wellstone's decision leaves vacuum on left

January 13, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcove

WASHINGTON -- Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's decision not to seek the Democratic presidential nomination does not quite rise to the level of bombshell news. The scrappy liberal of the old school always seemed at best the longest of long shots. But his candidacy would have contributed a worthwhile dimension to the 2000 race, if only as a voice of conscience prodding others in his party.

Mr. Wellstone's politics obviously are a throwback to New Deal days whose vigorous espousal of activist government has been brushed aside by the New Democrat positioning of President Clinton. Although the Minnesotan in his eight years in the Senate has been more pragmatic than his image as a knee-jerk liberal portrays, as a candidate he clearly would have been a target for liberal bashing.

The chronic back problem stemming from an old college wrestling injury that persuaded him he was not up to the rigors of a national campaign probably was the only thing that could have forced him to the sidelines. He was not intimidated by the wide early lead held by Vice President Al Gore, even knowing from the outset that a candidate of the left such as himself would be discounted as a serious challenger.

Running to win

From the start, Mr. Wellstone resisted suggestions that he could use a presidential candidacy as a platform for wider circulation of his liberal views. If he ran, he insisted as he began his exploration earlier last year, it would be to win. But his message on the stump would have been a reminder to Mr. Gore, striving to hold the political center, that there still were key party tenets of liberalism that could not be ignored.

Long after the New Deal era, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidential nominees ran as solid liberals until Mr. Clinton's first nomination in 1992. Mr. Clinton, in positioning himself and the party as centrist and cementing that position as president, obliged liberalism to fight to keep a toehold in Democratic politics.

In 1992, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa sought the Democratic nomination as an unvarnished liberal, depending heavily on labor support, but got nowhere. Organized labor itself had lost much of its influence, and Mr. Harkin also was undercut by the successful demonizing of liberalism by the GOP.

None of this inhibited Mr. Wellstone in his bid, as he liked to say, to represent "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." He fashioned himself for a time as a latter-day Robert Kennedy, kicking off a series of visits to poverty-stricken areas with a trip to rural Mississippi where Kennedy made a highly publicized tour. Although Mr. Wellstone matched him in intensity and emotional response, he did not cut the same figure, nor were the times as conducive to expressions of concern.

Mr. Wellstone insists he could have been nominated by starting strong in the first delegate-selecting caucuses in Iowa and the first presidential primary in New Hampshire, weathering the costly primaries in California and New York, emerging with perhaps 25 percent of the delegates selected by then, and coming on in his home base of the Midwest.

Pressure on Gore

Short of that, his presence in the race figured to be a pressure on Mr. Gore not to ignore their party's traditional commitment to the most neglected segments of American society, even as the vice president strove to hold and expand the political center.

Mr. Wellstone pledged when he first ran for the Senate in 1990 that he would serve only two terms, and he says he will hold to it. That means he has four more years to try, from the Senate, to inject his liberal principles back into the Democratic mainstream. In giving up his presidential campaign, it will be that much harder to get attention. But, he says, "I have my pen, I have my voice and I'm still on fire," and he intends to keep the heat on within his party.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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