Political Animal

What the Squad Could Learn From Paul Wellstone

Almost thirty years ago, when the oldest member of the Squad was 16 and the youngest an infant, a firebrand activist was elected to Congress with the goal of changing Washington. His name was Paul Wellstone. Almost immediately, he got in trouble with the so-called “establishment.”

At a White House reception for incoming members in late December, Wellstone defied decorum by cornering President Bush and urging him not to drag the country into war in the Persian Gulf.

The day before he took office in January, Wellstone staged an antiwar news conference near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and veterans groups immediately attacked him for being insensitive.

The news conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wasn’t simply offensive to Washington’s political elite, it reverberated back home as well—especially among veterans of that war. Wellstone eventually apologized to them for his insensitivity.

With the pushback against his unconventional tactics coming almost immediately, the senator from Minnesota decided that he needed to rethink his approach. It meant finding the balance between two roles.

Wellstone insists he can function as an inside player…and as an outsider. “I’ve reached a pretty firm conclusion that I should be substantive, be on top of the legislative program, make sure your word is good and stay in close touch with colleagues, let them know what you’re doing, don’t blindside people,” he says. “Those are, if you will, insider ethics. But by the same token, I’m even more convinced than ever that I want to push hard on the agenda. I want to continue to be a voice here for working with people on the outside of the process. I want to fight for change. I want to do it both ways.”

Over the course of his 11 years in the Senate, Wellstone continued to work to find the balance between those two roles, with some success as well as failures. He was no stranger to challenging Democratic leadership. For example, he advocated against passage of welfare reform and regularly forced senators to go on record with votes to raise their own pay. But he let down a lot of liberals when he voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, something he later came to regret.

On the other hand, Wellstone was willing for reach across the aisle and work with Republican Senator Pete Domenici on mental health parity. The two were polar opposites on almost every other issue. But this one was personal for both senators, who each had a family member with serious mental health issues. The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 passed six years after his death, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

As a testament to the power Wellstone had amassed by working to balance those two roles, he became the number one target for the Bush administration in 2002.

Paul Wellstone is a hunted man. Minnesota’s senior senator is not just another Democrat on White House political czar Karl Rove’s target list, in an election year when the Senate balance of power could be decided by the voters of a single state. Rather, getting rid of Wellstone is a passion for Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the special-interest lobbies that fund the most sophisticated political operation ever assembled by a presidential administration. “There are people in the White House who wake up in the morning thinking about how they will defeat Paul Wellstone,” a senior Republican aide confides. “This one is political and personal for them.”

Sadly, Wellstone died in a plane crash just 11 days before that election, along with his wife, daughter and five members of his campaign staff. Republican Norm Coleman—the candidate chosen by Dick Cheney to challenge Wellstone—won against a hastily recruited Walter Mondale.

As a testament to the respect Paul Wellstone had garnered from his colleagues, they made this video in tribute to him five years after his death.

On a more personal level, my friend Pakou Hang talked about what it meant to work for him.

My hope is that the Squad would learn something from Paul Wellstone. He never abandoned his role as an advocate for progressive causes and didn’t shy away from challenging Democratic leaders when he thought they were wrong. But he did so with joyous optimism, an embrace of the political process, and respect for those with whom he disagreed. In doing so, he garnered the power to become a threat to the Republican establishment rather than fodder for their political games.

Grappling with America’s Long History of White Supremacy

Our national discourse can be annoyingly ahistorical. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in how both the left and the right discuss our country’s greatest sins: slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. One example in the news today involves a New Hampshire state senator named Werner Horn who created some problems for himself with a Facebook post. He argued that former slave-holding presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t racist.

State Rep. Werner Horn has deleted a Facebook post on the matter, but has repeated his opinion in multiple interviews since. Horn was responding to a post from state House member who asked: “If Trump is the most racist president in American history, what does that say about all of the other presidents who owned slaves?” Horn replied: “Wait, owning slaves doesn’t make you racist… owning slaves wasn’t a decision predicated on race but on economics. It’s a business decision.” He later told HuffPost: “[Slave owners] weren’t enslaving black people because they were black. They were bringing in these folks because they were available.”

My basic response: our modern concept of racism cannot be retrofitted to apply to a world where white supremacy was taken as a given by the white population of this country. If you don’t immediately understand my point, I suggest you spend some time reading the transcripts of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. By the standards of today, both men were appallingly racist. It’s also clear from the way they each pander to the audiences that the people they’re addressing have never considered for a single moment the possibility of some kind of equality between whites and blacks. The objective conditions of the two populations basically precluded people from making that kind of argument.

Here’s Lincoln in the first debate:

My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,-to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.

Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.

We can of course insist that Lincoln was a racist, but that really tells us very little, and it certainly doesn’t absolve someone today for holding similar racist views. Washington and Jefferson each inherited the slaves they owned, and they each had their own discomforts with the justice of the system. They had different financial pressures and obligations that affected how they distributed their slaves in their wills. What they didn’t contemplate is the idea that whites and blacks were equals.

So, there’s a sense in which I agree with state Senator Horn. It doesn’t really make sense to use the racial beliefs of our founders to arbitrate who is racist today. On the other hand, black slavery persisted in this country long after white slavery was abolished, and that was a decision made based on white-supremacist beliefs. Even into the mid-1960s, pro-segregationist lawmakers made unapologetically white supremacist arguments to justify the Jim Crow system in the South. This only ceased after passage of major civil rights legislation.

Specific to Senator Horn’s point, people were enslaving blacks not only because they were available (for sale, if you will) but because white slaves were not. They had an economic reason to want free labor, but white supremacy dictated the race of those laborers. That this was viewed as moral and acceptable is a clear example of racism.

Of course, that doesn’t make it okay to still hold those kinds of beliefs today. It doesn’t mean that we can’t condemn the belief system that made black slavery possible. But it does mean that we’d be better off if we didn’t try to judge today’s racists by the standards of people from the past.

2020 Democratic Primary Voters Are Confounding the Pundits

As political shorthand, pundits like to talk about the lanes that are available for candidates to travel when seeking the nomination of their party. For most people, the 2016 Democratic primary came down to two lanes: establishment and insurgent. Nate Silver identified five lanes during the Republican primary that year: moderate, establishment, Christian conservative, libertarian and tea party.

For the 2020 Democratic primary, Joe Biden might have captured the establishment lane. But a look at his top competitors shows that they include three senators. While Sanders claimed the mantle of insurgent against Clinton, he’s having a hard time selling that one on his second run for president after spending 28 years in congress.

The reason that Sanders was able to run in the insurgent lane in 2016 was more about ideology than his long record in office. But as even he proudly states, he has some company four years later out on the left end of the political spectrum. So early on in the 2020 primary, pundits assumed that the primary lanes for this race included Sanders and Warren vying for the progressive lane, with candidates like Biden and Klobuchar anchoring the moderate or establishment lane.

But then we started hearing from voters. Three separate polls—Reuters/Ipsos, Washington Post/ABC News, and Morning Consult—all asked respondents to name their second-choice candidates. The results from all three were similar and demonstrated that voters are not deciding along ideological lines.

Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight developed this chart of the results from the poll conducted by Morning Consult.

As you can see, the candidate named most often as the second choice for Biden supporters is Sanders, just as the second choice for Sanders supporters is Biden. No two candidates in the field are further apart ideologically than Biden and Sanders.

You will also see that Warren is most often chosen as the second choice for Harris supporters, and vice versa. Harris is also the second choice for many Buttigieg supporters. Those of you who remember how Sanders’ supporters launched vicious attacks on O’Rourke before he even entered the race might be surprised to see that Sanders is the second choice for many O’Rourke supporters.

In trying to make some sense out of what this says about lanes, Rakich offers a whole host of possibilities.

Maybe this is the “experience” lane — Biden and Sanders have each served in public office for more than three decades. Maybe it is the “electability” lane, as those two are generally seen as having the best chance to beat President Trump. Or maybe name recognition still matters, and Biden and Sanders are the only two candidates these voters know a meaningful amount about.

Matthew Iglesias offered another possibility by suggesting that “it’s an ‘old white guy’ lane versus a ‘smart woman lawyer’ lane rather than ideological or policy voting.”

What it comes down to is that pundits don’t know what the hell it means, other than the fact that voters aren’t choosing based on pre-conceived notions of ideology. Personally, I suspect that Rakich’s explanation about name recognition is the most accurate. You can add to that the electability explanation, because voters probably think that the candidate they know is the most likely to win.

All of that would explain the Biden/Sanders supporters. But what about the Harris/Warren/Buttigieg lane? The polling of Indivisible supporters helps us answer that question. Respondents were asked: (1) which candidates are you considering voting for, and (2) which candidates are you NOT considering voting for?

The Harris/Warren/Buttigieg lane is occupied by the most politically engaged Democratic voters.

I have been closely watching the Washington Post/ABC News poll in which respondents are asked an open-ended question about who they support in the Democratic primary. Without being provided a list of names, 56 percent had no preference in late January. As of early July, that number was down to 19 percent. So voters are beginning to pay attention and make up their minds. As they do, we can expect that the name-recognition lane will become less significant and other lanes will emerge. In other words, this race for the Democratic presidential nomination is still very much in flux.

One Man Didn’t Break America and One Person Can’t Fix It

The last three years have been difficult. But as human beings, we adapt and move on because we can’t afford to let the daily onset of outrage keep us from our daily tasks. Just when we think we’ve found a way to cope, the current occupant of the White House sinks even lower into his hateful utterances, and we feel thrown off course once again.

Such has been the case with Trump’s repeated lies about four congresswomen as justification for his resurrection of one of the oldest racist tropes: telling people of color to go back where they came from because they don’t belong. As Kevin Drum documented, the last few years have been filled with events seen as new lows for Trump. This is merely the latest.

But there is something even more disturbing than having a hateful racist president. It was on display at a rally last night in North Carolina.

The crowd chanting “send her back” reminds us that what Donald Trump has done is expose the ugly racist underbelly that is still alive and well in this country. Contrary to what Trump and his Republican enablers would have you believe, liberals actually love this country and it is painful to see that kind of racism displayed so openly by our fellow citizens.

In light of this latest outrage, Karen Tumulty has written an open letter to Barack Obama suggesting that what we need right now is for him to speak out. She assumes that he has been reluctant to do so because, as a respecter of norms, he doesn’t want to criticize his successor. But during his farewell address, which occurred just days before Trump was inaugurated, Obama hinted at why he wouldn’t do so by giving us a prescription for how to handle what he knew was coming.

I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life.  It was in neighborhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills.  It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.  This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that.  And it’s not just my belief.  It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that we, the people, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

This is the great gift our Founders gave us.  The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, toil, and imagination – and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a greater good…

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;” that we should preserve it with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.  We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title:  Citizen…

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you.  I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain.  For now, whether you’re young or young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe.  Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes We Can.

Yes We Did.

Yes We Can.

What Barack Obama knew when he was elected president and recognized on an even deeper level as he left office is that one man alone isn’t responsible for what is happening in this country right now and one man alone can’t fix it. To look for a “savior” is to open the door to tyranny. But to put our faith in democracy and self-government is to believe in the collective “we.”