Paul Wellstone's Legacy of Compassion

The Minnesota senator was wrong to oppose free trade, but his concern for workers hurt by globalization will live on after his tragic death

By Christopher Farrell

"He was different. He was the most honest person in American politics. He won that one going away. Everything he said, from the heart. And then he goes down in a plane."

Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion

Minnesota is in mourning. Formal memorial services are being held around the state for Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers -- Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin -- who were all killed in a plane crash on Oct. 25. Spontaneous outpourings of grief are commonplace at churches, on street corners, and at work. It's fitting that winter has come early to this northern prairie state -- the air chilled, the sky gray and drizzling.

Wellstone was by far the U.S. Senate's most left-wing member. For 12 years, the 5-foot-5 former wrestler (the real, collegiate kind, rather than Governor Jesse Ventura's cartoon version) exuberantly excoriated his conservative Senate colleagues and energized his liberal followers with his firebrand populism. In death, as in life, Wellstone's appeal rests on the strong sense that he never compromised ideological principle for political expediency. He was an authentic self, to use a term popular during the '60s, a tumultuous era that profoundly shaped Wellstone's politics of dissent.


  The nasty partisan brawl for Minnesota's Senate seat has resumed. The Democratic/Farm/Labor standard-bearer will be former Vice-President and elder statesman Walter Mondale. A public wake on the campus of the University of Minnesota attended by some 20,000 people on Oct. 29 turned from a moving remembrance of the dead into a tacky political rally for power.

"We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone," Rick Kahn, a close friend of Wellstone, shouted from the podium. "We can be the answer to his prayers if you help us win this election for Paul Wellstone." So much for bipartisan healing and grief. The gloves are off, and the betting among the political cognoscenti is that Mondale will defeat Republican challenger Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul.

No question, Wellstone's character stood strong. A lot of people voted for him despite his politics simply because they admired him. But how durable is his signature economic populism? Will Wellstone's approach toward protecting "little fellers" from capitalism's creative destruction stay at the economy's margins, or will his economic populism shape the future of alternative policy to Bush-onomics?


  Wellstone was no fan of the New Economy. A staunch defender of unions and small family farmers, he railed against the power of Big Business and Big Money. His was a passionate voice against free trade, especially when it came to China, the world's rising economic power. Says John Judis, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority: "He really was a believer in the power of government and government spending to solve a lot of problems." Adds Paul Anton, chief economist of Anton, Lubov & Associates, a Minneapolis economic consulting firm: "If there was a problem and government could intervene to benefit, then it should."

His economic populism sounds alluring right now, following a long bear market, a recession, a recovery that feels like a recession, and the widespread corporate scandals. Students of U.S. history will certainly see intriguing parallels to the Gilded Age in the economic chords Wellstone was striking with the American electorate.

From the 1870s through the turn of the century, Social Darwinism, the notion that capitalism's rewards justly went to the fittest, gained adherents among plutocrats. Large corporations wielded immense political power. Inequality widened precipitously. But a populist revolt spread among farmers and workers. The progressive movement -- a loose coalition of farmers, organized labor, urban lower classes, and a segment of the middle-class business community -- worked to strengthen government power to offset the power of private enterprise.


  William Jennings Bryan, populism's masterful orator, failed as a Presidential candidate, but many of the reforms he championed became law. Among them: government control of currency and banking, the regulation of the railroads, telegraph and telephone, and the eight-hour workday.

Wellstone never achieved the fame or mastered the stump speech as well as Bryan, and his economic legacy will pale by comparison. Wellstone rightly worried about the domestic consequences of globalization. But his opposition to free trade will keep many of his solutions on the margins. Yes, income inequality widened over the past decade. But the economy prospered, and productivity soared. Real worker incomes rose, and poverty fell. And all this growth and income was largely thanks to a wave of technological innovation, combined with considerable deregulation and lower barriers to trade.

Mondale may be a Democratic Party old-timer, but his strong belief in the benefits of lowering trade barriers places him among his party's more moderate faction. Says Louis Johnston, economics professor at St. John's University and St. Benedict, in Collegeville, Minn.: "As ambassador to Japan, Mondale really pushed the idea for open trade on both sides of the ocean." Adds Steven Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government & Public Policy at Washington University: "The process of globalization that will make workers and management dependent on free trade will continue to march on."


  Here's what I think will be Wellstone's most enduring legacy: His focus on the victims of a Schumpeterian economy will resonate for years. The modern U.S. policy framework is built on a foundation of free trade, deregulation, and technological innovation. Fast economic growth has been more important than a more equal distribution of income.

Yet skepticism is growing about this model. Interest is now greater in devising ways of limiting the downside in the New Economy. "There is an ebb and flow to the public's interest in doing more for those who are left out," says Smith. "Even Republicans sense that the public mood has shifted in the direction of doing more for education and training."

In that sense, Wellstone has been a transitional figure. He passionately raised many legitimate concerns, from increased inequality to lost jobs. Alas, his solutions were flawed in a global economy. But his focus has forced policymakers, economists, and voters to grope with alternatives designed to keep the economy energized and also to protect the vulnerable. The debate on how to marry flexible social policies to an innovative global economy will dominate political discussions for years to come.

Farrell is contributing economics editor for BusinessWeek. His Sound Money radio commentaries are broadcast over Minnesota Public Radio on Saturdays in nearly 200 markets nationwide. Follow his weekly Sound Money column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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