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We Miss You, Paul Wellstone

Four years ago this month, one of our biggest political assets was taken from us. Today, more than ever, American politics suffers from his absence.
 
 
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Four years ago this month Paul Wellstone was taken from us. Today, more than ever, American politics suffers from his absence.

A few days ago, Senate Democrats agreed not to filibuster a bill allowing the President to detain indefinitely, even for life, any alien, whether in the United States or abroad, whether a foreign resident or a lawful permanent resident. The bill denies prisoners the right to challenge their detention in court.

Why would Democrats allow 51 Senators to eliminate one of the fundamental pillars of free societies? I imagine it was because their pollsters told them a vigorous opposition would lose them votes in the upcoming election as Republicans pummeled them for being soft on terrorism.

Paul would have filibustered. That would almost certainly have delayed a Senate vote until after the election, enabling Americans to more clearly demonstrate how they stand on the 800-year old right of habeas corpus.

Three weeks before he died, Paul voted against war in Iraq. At the time, his opponent was aggressively accusing Paul of being weak on national security. Polls told Paul a vote against war would lose him the election. But as he told the Washington Post two days after the vote, "I think people want you to do what you think is right." He then added, in typical Wellstone fashion, "how would I have had the enthusiasm and the fight if I had actually cast a vote I didn't believe in? I couldn't do that."

A few days later Paul delighted in the fact that his vote resulted in a surge of support among Minnesotans, a surge that almost certainly would have led to his reelection.

Paul knew how to filibuster. Single-handedly, his filibusters prevented a remarkably inequitable bankruptcy bill from being passed while he was in the Senate.

And he knew how to speak truth to power. When Exxon, the number one oil company, gobbled up number two Mobil, and the number one grain company, Cargill devoured runner-up Continental Grain, and the number one bank, Citicorp snapped up Travelers Insurance, the silence from Washington was deafening. The New York Times observed, "scarcely a politician of any stripe headed for the cameras" to question "whether the deals were good for the country, for workers or for consumers."

Except one. "Senator Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat is among the few in Congress still exercised about the concentration of corporate power".

In 1996, Wellstone was among the very few who voted against the Telecommunications Act. He argued it would lead to concentrated ownership. He was right. Over the next 22 months, more than 1,000 radio stations were sold. Some 450 owners left the field. Single companies now dominate local radio broadcasting.

In 1996, Paul bravely voted against ending the nation's commitment to the poor. Again, he was the only politician running for reelection who did so. "If you want to reduce poverty, stop scapegoating people," he said. "Start focusing on a good education and a good job."

Paul Wellstone proposed as well as opposed. For example, when the United States tried one more time to join the rest of the industrialized world in making access to medical care a right, not a privilege, Wellstone helped organize a grassroots coalition that gained considerable support in Congress in favor of a system similar to Canada's 30 year old program: a single insurer, local control, and private suppliers.

But it was in his opposition that he most clearly demonstrated both his character, and his uniqueness. On this anniversary of his death, we sorely miss his courage and leadership.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnnesota and director of its New Rules project.