Paul Wellstone, Pet Liberal

Why conservatives will miss the late Minnesota senator.

Everyone was saddened to learn last week that Sen. Paul Wellstone had died in a plane crash, but the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page was sadder than anyone else. Almost immediately, Peggy Noonan posted a Wellstone appreciation (“A Good Guy Dies an Untimely Death“) on its Web site. On Oct. 28, the Journal editpage eulogized Wellstone twice more, in an editorial headlined “A Conviction Politician” and in an op-ed by Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes titled “Paul Wellstone: Not a Faker, Just Plain Honest.”

Amazingly, fewer memorial tributes to Wellstone can be found on the Web sites for The Nation(two), the Progressive(one), and In These Times(none),all magazines whose politics are closely aligned with Wellstone’s, than on the Journal’s editpage, whose politics are completely antithetical. Among the major left-liberal national print organs, only Mother Jones has produced as many Wellstone tributes as the Journal editpage. (Caveat: This is as of Oct. 28, 3 p.m. Pacific Time. Chatterbox is not counting reprints on all three magazine Web sites of pieces by and interviews with Wellstone himself. Also, Chatterbox is counting neither a David Corn column in The Nation that strings together quotes from Wellstone’s book, The Conscience of a Liberal, nor the brief intro to a reprinted In These Times article by Wellstone. Chatterbox did count a John Nichols tribute to Wellstone’s wife Sheila, who also died in the plane crash, in The Nation.)

Chatterbox does not mean to suggest that the left admired Wellstone any less than did the right. Quite the opposite: The left surely admired Wellstone much more than did the right. So why is it displaying its grief less?

Let’s dispense first with two non-Machiavellian reasons. One is that Wellstone was a genuinely admirable man, and decency compelled those he’d done political battle with to make a point of saying so. (From the Journal editorial: “Mr. Wellstone’s principles weren’t ours, but we admired him because he rarely hid them.” Robert Novak said much the same thing in an Oct. 28 column.) Paying tribute to a deceased political adversary is like shaking hands with the opposing team after a ball game; it’s good sportsmanship. It’s different with a deceased political ally. Just as there’s no moral imperative to shake your teammate’s hand after a ball game, there’s no moral imperative to pay tribute to a comrade-in-arms after he passes on, though of course it’s always nice when you do.

Another non-Machiavellian reason the right is grieving more conspicuously than the left is that, among journalists paid to spout opinions in newspaper columns and on cable TV, conservatives outnumber liberals. Left-of-center opinion journalists who grieve for Wellstone have less access to the mass market than right-of-center opinion journalists who grieve for Wellstone. (Chatterbox is not including in this calculus straight-news reporters and journalists who belong to what conservatives scornfully label the “cultural elite,” i.e., those who write for small-circulation, quasi-academic publications. Liberals still outnumber conservatives there.)

But let’s consider a more calculating reason for the right to rend garments over Paul Wellstone. He was more useful to the right than he was to the left. That’s because he made liberals seem further to the left than they really were. Wellstone himself stood to the left of everyone else in the U.S. Senate. But when conservatives wrote or talked about him, they usually characterized him not as a left-liberal, but simply as a liberal. In his Journal piece, Fred Barnes wrote that whenever Wellstone appeared on his CNN program, The Beltway Boys, “I introduced him as our favorite liberal.” The Journal editorial stated, “He was an honest liberal.” Noonan’s Web piece for the Journal quoted with approval CNN’s Candy Crowley describing Wellstone as a “pure liberal.” A common theme in all these pieces was that Paul Wellstone’s beliefs were just like every other liberal politician’s; he just happened to be more honest about what those beliefs were and more uncompromising in living by them. Here’s Noonan:

[H]is liberalism wasn’t a jacket he put on in the morning to fool the rubes and powers—he meant it. He seemed to be a politician who was not a cynic, who was not poll driven, who was not in it just for the enjoyments of power. He operated from belief.

By contrast, runs this theme, your run-of-the-mill liberal doesn’t want voters to know just how much of a crypto-socialist he really is. Here’s Barnes:

He occasionally called himself a “progressive” but never a “new Democrat” or “moderate.” Nor did he insist, as many liberals do, that political labels mean nothing. He was not a faker.

Chatterbox disagrees with none of this praise for Wellstone. But can’t a “new Democrat” or “neoliberal” be just as true to his beliefs as Wellstone was to his? Are they all really just mountebanks and blow-dried weathervanes? Or is it possible, just possible, that some of them have arrived at their centrist views on the merits, after observing the experience of three decades during which certain core leftist beliefs were tested, and some found wanting?

Conservatives grieve Paul Wellstone because there is little or no chance that anyone as far to the left as Wellstone will be elected to the Senate anytime soon. Since the start of the Clinton administration, the main Republican project has been to maintain the fiction that an overwhelmingly centrist Democratic Party lies to the left of the American mainstream. Without Wellstone, that point will be a little harder to argue.

[Correction, Oct. 30: Fred Barnes’ show, The Beltway Boys, is on Fox News, not CNN.]

[Update, Oct. 30: The Nation has now added many more Wellstone remembrances to its Web site. To read them, click here, here, and here.]