“The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.”

Morgan Morel

– Woody Allen’s “Match Point”

Almost exactly four years ago, I heard former Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) referred to as “the conscience of the Senate.” The title – similar to that of Wellstone’s autobiography, “Conscience of a Liberal” – arose from his well-known dissensions in his almost 12 years in the Senate. Wellstone was generally an extreme progressive, once labeled “embarrassingly liberal” by an unworthy opponent. Yet he remained a thorn in the side of most Republicans (and often the Democratic establishment) for his many maverick votes, including on the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and the authorization for the war in Iraq in 2002.

Wellstone was one of the ringleaders of what would soon become the Howard Dean school of the Democratic Party – what first Wellstone and then Dean called “the democratic wing” of the party. He believed in his liberal base and wasn’t having any of that diluted liberalism that dominated his party in the 1990s, spearheaded by Bill Clinton’s ideology of “triangulation.” And he was from Minnesota, the only state crazy enough to have gone for Walter Mondale in 1984. That he would be the extreme liberal force to shift this country back into ideological equilibrium was beyond doubt.

With criticism of the war in Iraq already building by late 2002 and sure to be a major issue in the 2004 presidential race, little stood in Wellstone’s way. He’d explored running for president before, and, given the hoopla around Dean’s blundering, hapless candidacy in 2004, Wellstone would have represented the best of both worlds for Democrats fed up with the Bushies. In his opposition to the administration, he was a firebrand like Dean, but he would possess the tact and strategy of a Senate veteran. In a sense, he’d be a hybrid of Dean and John Kerry – in other words, a winner.

Why so many conditional statements? Surely you remember. Returning to Minnesota for a funeral just 11 days before the 2002 midterm election, Wellstone, his wife and one daughter were killed in a plane crash. Former Vice President Mondale was selected to run in his place, but two decades removed from a political environment he could understand, Mondale fumbled one of the safest Democratic Senate seats in the country to neoconservative Republican Norm Coleman.

Regardless of how far the table promises, threatens or even seems to tip, politics in our country always comes down to the last drop, and it can fall either way. One moment, Paul Wellstone was a prominent senator eyeing a presidential run that would prematurely stifle the rise of neocon ideology in American foreign policy. Then he was dead, his seat taken by a man who would champion that very neocon agenda as its practitioners ran morally amuck.

And, of course, Wellstone wasn’t the only one whose premature death turned American politics upside down. Mel Carnahan was governor of Missouri when he challenged incumbent John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) for his Senate seat in 2000. Carnahan died in a plane crash before the election, but managed to defeat Ashcroft anyway. And what became of the man who couldn’t muster the votes to beat a dead guy? He became attorney general, of course – Patriot Act and all.

A contemporary Woody Allen, using an iffy tennis metaphor, suggested “There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.” Should but a slight whiff of air betray the trajectory, the ball would fail to clear the net, but if it manages to go over, the result is the same as if it had gallantly sped over. In the paper the next day, a match that turned on one or two false bounces may appear a veritable, convincing blowout. But the careful observer knows better.

And that is where we stand today. Republicans have held the House of Representatives for 12 years and the Senate of late too. That, coupled with the presidency they “convincingly” won in 2004, has falsely given some the notion of a resounding mandate. Republicans acted the last few years with delusions of carte-blanche power, managing to legislate the largest budget hole in history. But it was no deafening serve of a champion that propelled their majority – rather a false bounce, and those work both ways.

And now, four years after Senator Wellstone’s death – after four years of a conscienceless Senate, four years since the promise of balance departed – the ball has popped straight up again. If it takes the bizarre Foley scandal to reshuffle the deck, then so be it.

Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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