With this year’s elections only a week away, all the political drama is revolving around the fate of the United States Senate. With a one-seat majority, the Democrats have been able to blunt some of the more extreme moves of the Bush Administration over the last year and a half. But that moderating influence on an assertively right wing presidency now hangs on a number of tight races around the country.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

It’s strange that the Democrats could be so close to losing their majority. After all, the Bush presidency can hardly be called a success. The economy is suffering badly and even the administration has stopped pretending it will get better any time soon. The federal budget surplus has collapsed from $127 billion last year into a $159 billion deficit this year. The Republicans haven’t even been able to politically exploit national security as extensively as Karl Rove had wanted. After angry chest thumping about the possible threat of Iraq, the administration’s comparative timidity in the face North Korea’s real threat has sucked much of their air out of its poll-inflating bellicosity, and its once promising efforts at persuading other nations to agree to attack Iraq have faltered badly.

Democrats have been unable to exploit these weaknesses, however, and it’s easy to see why. In many close contests Democrats have tied themselves to Bush’s budget busting tax cuts. In most, they dutifully promise to rubber stamp the president’s national security proposals. In South Carolina, the candidates are arguing over which of them is more like Strom Thurmond. There are some, however, who have resisted this trend. Most notable was Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was the only senator in a tight race to cast a politically risky “no” vote on authorizing war with Iraq. While Wellstone had been in a neck and neck race all year, after his defiance on Iraq, he began opening up a lead in his race.

Tragically, Sen. Wellstone died in a plane crash on Friday. His death pushed the D.C. area sniper story and the taking of over 700 hostages in Moscow into the background of news coverage that day as all the Washington press, even conservative commentators, lamented his passing. Newspapers across the country ran editorials in admiration. Fellow senators broke down in tears when they tried to talk about him. Other senators have died in recent years, but the reaction was never anything like this.

The bipartisan outpouring of sympathy and the wall-to-wall coverage of his death did not happen because Wellstone worked well with everyone.

Frequently cited as the senate’s most liberal member, he fiercely battled much of the Republican agenda and was frequently a headache to more consensus minded Democrats. Disregarding the conventional wisdom that one must be or at least campaign as much like a moderate as possible, Wellstone pulled off a surprising upset of an incumbent in 1990, won another tough race in 1996 and looked ready to win again this year in a state where the

Democratic party has been weakening for some time. Ominously for a democracy, the dominant political behavior these days has become bandwagoning. Going along with whatever looks most popular, most likely to win votes and avoid controversy. If the president’s approval rating is 67 percent, people must want war with Iraq at any cost, right wing activists running the judiciary, out of control deficits and more tax cuts for the wealthy.

What Wellstone was proving is that hitching yourself to what polls say is popular isn’t the only way to succeed. You can also argue for something better. And the arguments are obvious. Is the nation better off than it was two years ago? Do we want adequate health care for the living or tax cuts for the dead? Should we conserve energy and develop alternate sources or continue to depend on terrorist funding oil-tyrannies? Should our foreign policy be based on cooperation with other countries or the assumption that we’ll always be so much stronger than everyone else that we can alienate our allies and go it alone forever?

Wellstone was popular with his colleagues because he was a nice guy. But his loss hit so hard across the country because he was one of the few politicians to ask these questions loudly, publicly and frequently. He was speaking for millions of people who wonder these things, but feel left out of the debates in Washington.

Everyone can learn something from Paul Wellstone. His lifelong fight for those who weren’t sharing in our national prosperity was inspiring and shows how much one dedicated person can accomplish. But hopefully it is his Democratic colleagues who will learn the most from him. The impact of this tragedy on so many should let them see that the bandwagon isn’t the only way to go and that there’s an incredible yearning and opportunity in this country for something better than the same old politics and policy as usual.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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