“If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”
— Paul Wellstone
Five years ago, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) died when his plane went down in the woods of northern Minnesota. The crash also took the lives of his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, campaign staffers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy, along with pilots Michael Guess and Richard Conry.
This grim remembrance is a marker for the Democratic majority in Congress, a moment for unblinking self-assessment, a chance to compare and contrast the vast gulf between who Wellstone was in life and what his party has become since his death.
Wellstone’s political life was dominated by his efforts to improve economic and social conditions for millions of Americans. He began as a community organizer during the 1970’s, advocating on behalf of working families and the poor for better health care, affordable housing, better public education, day care and other essential programs and policies. Through these activities, he created a powerful network of activists, union members, farmers and other newly involved citizens.
The effectiveness of this network made the difference in his long-shot 1990 campaign for US Senate against Rudy Boschwitz, an entrenched incumbent with far greater financial resources. Over the next twelve years, Senator Wellstone served as a tireless advocate for environmental protections, labor rights, victims of domestic violence, veterans, campaign finance reform and sensible US foreign policy.
Wellstone’s Senate career began, and tragically ended, in remarkably similar fashion. His first months in office were defined by his opposition to President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 “Gulf War” against Iraq, and some twelve years later, his last weeks in office were defined by his vote against another Bush administration, and against another push for war in Iraq. On October 11, 2002, Wellstone was one of only twenty-three senators to cast a vote against the fateful Iraq War Resolution.
The week before, on October 3, Wellstone addressed the proposed attack upon and occupation of Iraq in a speech given from the floor of the Senate. “The United States could send tens of thousands of US troops to fight in Iraq,” he said, “and in so doing, we could risk countless lives of US soldiers and innocent Iraqis.”
“The United States could face soaring oil prices,” he said, “and could spend billions, both on a war and on a years-long effort to stabilize Iraq after an invasion.”
“Authorizing the pre-emptive, go-it-alone use of force now,” he said, “right in the midst of continuing efforts to enlist the world community to back a tough new disarmament resolution on Iraq, could be a costly mistake for our country.”
A week and a day later, the IWR passed in the Senate. Five days after that vote, it was signed into law by George W. Bush. Nine days after that signature, five years ago, Paul Wellstone was gone. His words from October 3, 2002, however, still remain. No other floor statement given by any senator before the IWR vote echoes with such prescience. Wellstone was right, and voted accordingly. He was a beacon in the darkness that has spread and spread until, five years later, this nation and the world entire have become almost completely cloaked in shadow.
After Wellstone’s death, his staff released a transcript of his last 2002 midterm election campaign commercial, which had been slated for airing just before the November vote. “I don’t represent the big oil companies,” said Wellstone in the ad; “I don’t represent the big pharmaceutical companies, I don’t represent the Enrons of this world. But you know what, they already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need it. I represent the people of Minnesota.” Little else needs to be said; his own words are more than enough.
What can be said, on the other hand, about the Senate he served so well? What about the Democrats who now enjoy majority control but flee the very thought of representing the will of the American people? They called Wellstone “The conscience of the Senate,” and that honorable title seems more true today than ever. Since that conscience died, the Democrats – time after time after time again – have performed unconscionable acts of cowardice, ambivalence and betrayal.
“Every now and then, we are tempted to double-check that the Democrats actually won control of Congress last year,” read a recent editorial from The New York Times. “It was bad enough having a one-party government when Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. But the Democrats took over, and still the one-party system continues.”
As reported by The New York Times on October 14, 2007: “The phone company Qwest Communications refused a proposal from the National Security Agency that the company’s lawyers considered illegal in February 2001, nearly seven months before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 … documents unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Denver, first reported in The Rocky Mountain News on Thursday, claim for the first time that pressure on the company to participate in activities it saw as improper came as early as February (2001), nearly seven months before the terrorist attacks.”
The Bush administration was trying to spy on Americans back when 9-1-1 was only the telephone number for the police. Since the September 11 attacks, the administration has folded, spindled and mutilated the Constitution and Bill of Rights in a rampage of unchecked anti-American activities, ranging from illegal domestic surveillance, to legislative “signing statements” that gut the meaning from duly passed laws, to brazen defiance of legally served subpoenas, to wild-eyed arguments against gossamer FISA-court oversight of their cloak-and-dagger actions.
The tempo of this behavior appears poised to increase. A Washington Post article titled “To Implement Policy, Bush to Turn to Administrative Orders,” appropriately published on Halloween, reported that “White House aides say the only way Bush seems to be able to influence the process is by vetoing legislation or by issuing administrative orders, as he has in recent weeks on veterans’ health care, air-traffic congestion, protecting endangered fish and immigration. They say they expect Bush to issue more of such orders in the next several months, even as he speaks out on the need to limit spending and resist any tax increases.”
And yet this Democratic Senate majority, with a slim few notable exceptions, fully intends to immunize the telecom companies who aided in the illegal and warrantless surveillance of Americans by Bush’s big ears at NSA, thus derailing the last and best way to determine, via lawsuits and investigations, exactly how dirty the Bush administration is regarding this illegal spying program. The Democratic senators pushing hardest for telecom immunity also enjoy the financial largess of that very same industry.
And the Democrats may not stop there.
And that was just last week, the very week Paul Wellstone died five years before.
Some days after Wellstone’s death, his friend Tom Schraw penned an essay for The Oregonian titled “When Your Conscience Dies.” In it, he wrote, “When Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota died in a plane crash last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle described him as “the soul of the Senate.” United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan described him as “a profoundly decent man, a man of principle, a man of conscience.” Which leads to the question: What do you do when your soul dies, and your conscience goes away?”
What do you do?
According to the Democratic majority in Congress, what you do is nothing. You talk a good game and then wither away. You fold. You retreat. You whistle past the graveyard and cross your fingers. You betray the Constitution you swore to uphold. You betray the American people. You do not, under any circumstances, defy The President.
The conscience of the Senate died five years ago. His name was Paul Wellstone. His colleagues cannot have forgotten him so soon. Let them remember.
Let them act.