SOLOMON: Bumpy Media Road

During the last quarter century, many journalists have portrayed the Democratic Party as an uneasy mix of pragmatic moderates, unrealistic liberals and stubborn leftists. With attention now turning to the party's next presidential nomination, such media themes will soon be surging again.Midway through the sixth year of the Clinton presidency, Al Gore is the party's heir apparent. Most of the Washington press corps seems to like the vice president, who blends mild social liberalism with fierce loyalty to corporate power. Generally speaking, he's their kind of guy.Sen. Paul Wellstone is not their kind of guy. While running for a second term in 1996, he voted against the cruel welfare "reform" bill that President Clinton pushed into law. Commentators quickly wrote Wellstone's political obituary. Back home in Minnesota, his Republican foe denounced "Senator Welfare." But Wellstone -- with extensive grass-roots support -- defied the gods of mass media and won re-election to the Senate.Today, Paul Wellstone is saying that he wants to run for president in 2000. And you can almost hear the mainstream pundits sharpening their knives.A classic sequence of media spin is probable if Wellstone goes ahead with a presidential campaign: First, he can't win. Then, if he makes headway in early primaries and caucuses, he shouldn't win. And if a lot of voters keep rejecting that assessment, then the hue and cry will be that his nomination would wreck the Democratic Party.Several weeks ago, writing about a possible Wellstone race, syndicated columnists Ben and Daniel Wattenberg scoffed that the senator's distinguishing political characteristics include the fact that he is "antiquely" in favor of federal jobs programs.But thoroughly modern pundits may not denigrate the value of "message candidates" -- at least during the he-can't-win phase. "Their circuit rides bring fresh ideas, new voters and new activists into the system," the neo-conservative Wattenbergs exult. "In fact, such candidacies may have replaced third parties as the safety valve of American politics. More voters feel represented, fewer feel alienated."That sort of backhanded praise for a long-shot presidential campaign is meant as a fleeting pat on the head. But it may actually point to a drawback of progressive efforts to win the Democratic presidential nomination.The purpose of fighting for genuine political change and an end to corporate dominance, after all, is not to make more voters "feel" represented. In the high places where key decisions are made, with so many profound consequences, we should ITAL>be

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