Paul Wellstone used to (half) joke that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” by which I took him to mean he was one of those relatively rare liberals who wasn’t embarrassed by his liberalism. (During the 1996 Wellstone-Boschwitz rematch campaign, Boschwitz hired an adman whose specialty was pinning the L-word on his Dem targets. The ads against Wellstone said things like “liberal, liberal, liberal” and “embarrassingly liberal.”
Part of Wellstone’s legacy is “Wellstone Action,” headed by Wellstone’s old campaign manager Jeff Blodgett, which trains progressive activists for political work “the Wellstone way.” Last night, at the Parkway Theater, Wellstone Action put on what might have been a wake in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election but turned into a combination fund-raiser, pep rally and comedy hour.
The all-star (all-DFL) cast included governor-elect (sort of) Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, freshly re-elected U.S. Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison and Texas progressive wisenheimer Jim Hightower (who actually turns out to be kind of a lowtower when you stand right next to him).
Absolutely no news was made that this ink-stained wretch could discern, but it was a refreshing display of what unabashed liberalism looks like.
Dayton isn’t much of a comedian. He brought down the house mostly just by showing up as the embodiment of one of the left’s few triumphs from last Tuesday, and even that remains somewhat tentative. Dayton still isn’t claiming victory but he said “I think I’ve got better odds [of becoming governor] than I’ve had any other time over the past two years.”
Franken, who spent much of his first Senate year stifling the ruder ranges of his sense of humor, went for a sort of sweet-snide sarcasm (maybe you had to be there, the crowd lapped it up) as he mused out loud about what to say to the righties (Repub national chair Michael Steele was mentioned in this context) who complain that government spending in incapable of creating any permanent jobs or economic activity.
“Have you ever heard of the interstate highway system?” Franken imagined himself asking the rightie, with a good natured-shrug but a tone that nonetheless suggested (the guy is a professional) that the answer was fairly obvious and the imaginary interlocutor must not be all that swooft if he doesn’t know this stuff.
Are any goods being shipped up and down that system? He asked…. Are any truckdrivers making a living doing that? Are they buying diesel fuel and eating at truck stops along it?… Have you ever heard of the internet [which started as a Defense Department project.] Are any goods being ordered over the internet?…
You get the idea. Just to be sure, he noted that this kind of government stimulus has a long history, asking the imaginary person “Did you ever hear of the Erie Canal?”
Walz, who escaped after a tough reelection fight, is less of a comedian, but did play a literary card in suggesting that those who deride everything the government does should read “Lord of the Flies.”
“Do you know what can happen when you go in that direction?” he asked, as the crowd hooted and hollered. (If that one passed you by, here’s a Lord of the Flies plot summary.)
Walz, who voted for the big health care bill, said he may have benefitted in defending that vote because his district includes the Mayo Clinic. “Some people down in Rochester known a little something about medicine,” he gibed.
Democrats can complain that the other side is telling lies and half truths, Walz said, but “that only makes it incumbent on us to put out our message and to state it clearly.” Walz, by the way, trained with Wellstone Action before becoming a candidate.
Ellison acknowledged the pasting that Dems took on Tuesday but then urged everyone to stick together and to be bolder. “This is no time to form that circular firing squad,” he said.
He, too, is proud of his vote for the health care bill, Ellison said, “but I wish we had had a real debate about single-payer that we have never had” (because, he implied, too many liberals are afraid to admit they favor it). That kind of debate will educate the public so that someday, single-payer will not be dismissed as political suicide. He quoted his dad, who used to say “you don’t have to get ready if you stay ready.”
He closed by promising that when the time came, he would be ready, to argue for a public option in the health care plan, or for single payer, or for getting the troops out of Iraq, or for a national movement to amend the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate campaign contributions during this last election cycle.
The least known person on stage was newly-elected state representative Rena Moran of St. Paul.
Moran briefly told her story of rising from homelessness, to employment, to getting trained as a candidate through Wellstone Action (she attended what they call “Camp Wellstone”). She actually lost the DFL endorsement for her district to a candidate who had more backing from party insiders, then rallied to win the primary. After winning the general election, she became the first African-American legislator from St. Paul.
Hightower is a one-time Texas agriculture commissioner (in Texas, that’s an elective office), now a radio personality and author whose books bear such hilarious titles as “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos,” “If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They’d Have Given Us Candidates,” and his latest, “Swim against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow.
His basic message last night was summed up by this one-liner:
“The progressive movement didn’t lose this election; Obama and the Democratic leadership lost it by not being progressive enough.”
Likewise, he said many of the losing candidates were not too liberal but “too lame and too corporate.” The loss of the Democratic House majority will “usher in the regime of Suntan Johnny Boehner.”
A couple more Hightower one-liners from last night:
His momma always told him that “two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.”
The message of the voters was “throw the bums out, and they did, but unfortunately they threw quite a few bums in, too.”
Referring to certain Tea Partyish candidates: “Flakes really belong in cereal bowls, not in the U.S. Senate.”
Strategy for the next election: “Don’t take America back. Take America forward.”
And lastly, he told of his friend who wears a button that says: “Wearing a button is not enough.”