Heir Apparent: Which DFL candidate is best suited to inherit the Wellstone legacy?

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by Rich Broderick, 3/26/08 • Did you know that Rudy Boschwitz won re-election to the Senate in 1990?

It’s true. Everybody who was anybody in the DFL leadership back in 1989 and early 1990 knew that Boschwitz’s second-term was inevitable. No way to beat the man. He’d raised tons of money – he even gave out fund-raising advice to other Republicans – had name recognition, a middle of the road legislative record designed not to offend anyone, a highly organized campaign team. I mean, why bother even trying to defeat him? And so, one by one, name brand potential DFL candidates like Walter Mondale took a look at their prospects for unseating the incumbent and decided to take a pass. Leaving the field open to hopeless upstart wannabe’s without a prayer of winning.

Like hopeless upstart wannabe Paul Wellstone. Everybody who was anybody knew he could not be elected, so why not give him a chance? After all, the election outcome was a foregone conclusion. Wasn’t it?

As we all know, a funny thing happened to Boschwitz on his way to cruising to a second term. Even though he outspent Wellstone by a factor of seven or eight-to-one, Boschwitz was outwitted, outmaneuvered, out-campaigned, and out-thought by his nimble opponent. It was Shock and Awe versus the asymmetrical tactics of an insurgency candidate. In the very year that Boschwitz was supposedly a shoo-in for re-election he was beaten in a squeaker by the man who went on to become one of the most progressive and honorable U.S. Senators ever produced by Minnesota.

The irony, of course – and it is an irony that the DFL needs to think about this year – is that if in 1989 and early 1990 Boschwitz had been seen not as inevitable but as vulnerable, Wellstone would never have been endorsed. In other words, if Boschwitz were in the same position then as Norm Coleman is today, Wellstone would have been brushed aside and the endorsement handed to one of those name brand DFL politicians. And, in all likelihood, Rudy Boschwitz would now be coming to the end of his fifth undistinguished term as a U.S. Senator.

Why does the DFL need to think about this? Because the only thing standing between Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and an endorsement that will enable him to unseat Coleman is the perception that Coleman is beatable and so the party has to go with a “safe” candidate. Somebody with money and a brand name. Somebody like Al Franken.

This is not the place to rehearse in detail the arguments for why Franken is a weak candidate. There’s his lack of analytical acumen, the skeletons sure to be unearthed from his show-biz past, his chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, his abrasive style – even the titles of his books are enough to make most Minnesotans squirm — the egotism that leads someone with no experience in public office or community organizing to begin his political career by shooting for the U.S. Senate, his claim that his early support for the invasion of Iraq was the result of being “fooled”

This last point is, in particular, a killer on several different levels. For someone who prides himself on his wit, how was it that Franken was fooled by falsehoods that wouldn’t have tricked a half-wit? And if past is prologue, isn’t it likely that he could be just as easily “fooled” again? Whether his initial support for the worst foreign policy debacle in American history was the result of fear, stupidity, political calculation, or some combination thereof, there is no reason to believe that, in similar future circumstances, Franken would demonstrate any better judgment.

But ultimately there is really only one question DFL delegates need to ask themselves in the coming weeks. Who is the Democratic candidate with the best claim to be rightful heir of Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat? Al Franken or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer? Who is most likely to carry on Paul Wellstone’s passionate fight for social and economic justice, his willingness to stand against the rush to war? Al Franken or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer? Who is most likely to display the kind of moral courage Paul Wellstone summoned in October 2002, when he voted against the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq? Al Franken – who supported the invasion of Iraq — or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer – who, as a member of Paul Wellstone’s volunteer advisory team, helped the late Senator reach his decision to oppose the invasion? Who is most likely to stand up and fight entrenched interests, including the entrenched interests at the DNC and the DLC? Al Franken or Jack Nelson Pallmeyer?

If DFL delegates make shallow – and inevitably wrong-headed – calculations based on name recognition and “electability,” we are doomed to six more years of Coleman. If, on the other hand, those delegates examine their hearts and their consciences, they can only come up with one answer: Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. If they follow that leading and endorse the man, odds are very good that Norm Coleman will be forced to vacate the Senate seat that Paul Wellstone would be occupying today if fate had not tragically intervened six years ago this coming fall.

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