Wellstone: Exaggerated grief gives lessons on liberalism

By Michael Medved

“Why don’t the Democrats save themselves a lot of trouble and put up one big tombstone over Sen. Wellstone’s grave with an inscription – maybe in flashing neon – that says, ‘VOTE FOR MONDALE?'”

This irreverent suggestion made the rounds on conservative talk radio the day after an unprecedented attempt to turn a solemn, televised memorial service into a partisan pep rally. The event in Minnesota, just four days after Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter, three young aides and two pilots all died in a terrible plane crash, featured the late senator’s son trying to pump up the crowd like a yell leader before a homecoming game, complete with rhythmic chants of “WE WILL WIN! WE WILL WIN!”

The emotions surrounding Wellstone’s death may or may not guarantee Democratic victory, but they do dramatically reveal four disturbing aspects of contemporary liberalism:

  1. For most Democrats, liberalism isn’t just a matter of political preference, it’s a substitute religion.

    The unapologetically partisan tone of the Wellstone memorial reflected the conviction that the liberal agenda – not service to God, family or country – represents the highest purpose anyone can pursue in life. Like any other faith, liberalism comes complete with its own saints (Teddy Kennedy, Jesse Jackson) and its own strict lists of “Thou Shalts” and “Thou Shalt Nots” (“Thou shalt always protect a woman’s right to abort,” “Thou shalt never cut taxes for the well-to-do.”)

    Spiritual imagery soared during the days after Wellstone’s death. In a campaign rally for Sen. Tom Harkin in Ames, Iowa, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle announced to the hushed crowd: “In many ways, Paul Wellstone is still living. His spirit is in us … The spirit of Paul Wellstone lives on in Tom Harkin’s heart.” During the memorial service, Wellstone’s campaign treasurer Rick Kahn declared: “If Paul Wellstone’s legacy comes to an end, then our spirits will be crushed and we will drown in a river of tears. We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone!”

    Of course, Republican victory might well cause Democratic disappointment, but “crushed spirits” and “a river of tears”? Christian conservatives draw frequent criticism for allowing political priorities to play a role in their religious faith, but Democrats regularly infuse their politics with the intensity and even mysticism of religion.

  2. Liberals pretend to focus on the future but actually prefer to live in the past.

    When forced to find substitute Senate candidates, the Democrats enthusiastically embraced heroes of yesteryear – 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey and 74-year-old Walter Mondale in Minnesota. Both men, despite their previously announced retirements, inspired and energized liberals precisely because they offered a nostalgic connection to bygone glories.

    The figures who got the biggest crowd response from the 20,000 at the Wellstone memorial boasted the same sort of connection to some vanished golden age-or-other: Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    Democrats fixate on restorations: Jack Kennedy was supposed to restore the New Deal, Bobby Kennedy was supposed to restore Camelot, Ted Kennedy was supposed to restore the legacy of his fallen brethren, Bill Clinton was supposed to restore all of the above. Not for nothing do they sing “Happy Days are Here Again,” the ultimate ballad of nostalgic restoration, as the party’s all-but-official anthem.

  3. The idea that Clintonian “New Democrats” have captured the party and steered it to a more moderate, centrist position is merely a pose and a sham; beneath the mask, Democrats remain more liberal than ever.

    How else can one explain the over-the-top orgy of grief for Paul Wellstone, easily the Senate’s most left-wing member? Tom Daschle and other eulogists described the late senator as the “soul” or “the conscience” or “the heart” of the party. These telling terms suggest that contemporary leaders may have adopted the exterior trappings of moderation and caution in their bid for power, but beneath the masquerade their “heart” and “soul” remain as unabashedly leftist as Wellstone’s.

    Would the sudden death of a more moderate senator – say, Max Baucus of Montana – provoke anything like the national mourning occasioned by Wellstone’s death? For the purposes of perspective, one need not rely on a hypothetical: Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri died in a plane crash two years ago in the midst of a Senate campaign under circumstances hauntingly similar to Wellstone’s, but the demise of this mainstream public servant never provoked the coast-to-coast agony that afflicted Democrats this time.

    Wellstone’s loss inspired the most intense mourning precisely because he represented the most intensely liberal wing of his party – thus, presumably, the most pure, authentic and sacred element of the Democratic coalition.

  4. Democrats instinctively rely on the mainstream media – especially the TV networks and the prestige press – to echo and reinforce their messages and priorities.

    Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the entire Wellstone incident involved the unquestioning acceptance by nearly all commentators of the overwhelming importance and grandeur of this “great national tragedy.” Nineteen members of Congress have died in plane crashes since 1928 – including the youthful, popular (but, alas, Republican) Sen. John Heinz a mere 11 years ago. None of these sad incidents inspired anywhere near the attention or emotion of the Wellstone accident, which now counts as the most emotionally mourned political loss since the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

    The Democrats, in their eagerness to generate sympathy votes on a national basis, most certainly sensed a practical purpose in this disproportionate attention, but only profoundly biased media would go along with them. As Ken Warren of St. Louis University observed in Newsday: “The press coverage has been so positive, it almost constitutes a national ad for the Democrats. The sympathy factor carries over to the party.”

That strategy may yet work on Nov. 5, but the weaknesses it exposes provide warning signs for the party’s future. A religion based on electoral politics will remain hollow and shaky, a party fixated on the past can’t move forward, a coalition that leans unmistakably to the left will forfeit much of the center, and a faction that relies on utterly compliant media will, on occasion, be frustrated and disappointed. Whatever the outcome of this election in Minnesota and around the country, honest Democrats will feel little reason to sing, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”