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Bush Fears Tenacious, Popular Wellstone
Published on Tuesday, April 24, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Bush Fears Tenacious, Popular Wellstone
by John Nichols
 
ST. PAUL — U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone had just finished rousing a crowd of 2,000 trade unionists, farmers, environmentalists and students with a fiery condemnation of George W. Bush’s free trade policies, and now he had a problem. He couldn’t get down the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol here to join the march protesting Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas scheme.

Wellstone is just too popular with his constituents. He couldn’t move in the face of a steady stream of men in Teamsters jackets, farm wives holding newborns, green-haired college kids and Catholic priests approaching to offer variations on the words of a steelworker who told Wellstone, "I am so damn proud to be able to say you’re my senator."

Most of them also asked a question: "How come Bush hates you so much?"

Let there be no doubt as to the identity of George W. Bush’s least favorite Democratic U.S. senator. It’s Wellstone, the rabble-rousing Progressive who represents not just Minnesota but what remains of the fighting populist spirit of the Upper Midwest.

Elected in 1990 following a grass-roots campaign in which he toured the state on a beat-up school bus, Wellstone was the No. 1 target in 1996 for Republicans who thought the senator had doomed himself with a lonely vote against punitive "welfare reform" legislation. He won re-election with ease that year, proving to both the Republicans and to their whimpering Democratic allies that bashing the poor might not be nearly so smart a political move as Dick Morris thought.

As Wellstone prepares to seek a third term next year, it would be reasonable to assume that he might finally be in for some smooth political sailing. But reasonableness doesn’t figure into the calculations of the Bush White House, where the president himself, Vice President Dick Cheney and political commissar Karl Rove practice the politics of vengeance.

The Bushies despise Wellstone, who unlike most Senate Democrats has been fighting spirited battles against the new administration’s policies on everything from the environment to the tax cuts for the rich to military aid for the "Plan Colombia" drug war boondoggle. Other Democratic senators who face re-election contests in 2002 are, according to polls, more vulnerable than Wellstone. But the Bush camp has been focusing highest-level attention on "Plan Wellstone" — its project to silence progressive opposition.

Last Tuesday as Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty was just hours away from announcing his intention to mount a Republican challenge to Wellstone, he got an urgent call from Rove asking him to step aside for Bush’s preferred candidate, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Then, on Wednesday morning, with just 90 minutes to go before his planned announcement, Pawlenty was driving his kids home from a dental appointment. The car phone rang, and Pawlenty found himself talking to Cheney. The vice president told Pawlenty that Bush did not want Coleman — a party-switching former Democrat who chaired the losing Bush presidential campaign in Minnesota — to face a difficult primary contest from a credible Republican.

Pawlenty finally "agreed" to step aside.

Minnesota is not the only state where the Bush camp is seeking to pick senators. But the level of involvement in the Wellstone race is remarkable. Coleman dropped a planned gubernatorial bid after two White House pressure sessions with Bush. And now that Coleman is leaning toward a Senate race, Bush, Cheney and Rove are pulling out all the stops to make sure they are in charge of the anti-Wellstone effort.

Even Pawlenty, as he was proclaiming himself a "team player," admitted that "it makes you wonder about the process and the integrity of the process."

What does Wellstone say? "I think the way to oppose George W. Bush is to stand up to him, to speak out when his policies are wrong, to put holds on bad legislation he’s promoting. Obviously, that’s not the sort of opposition Bush and Cheney approve of. The nice thing is that, even if they can dictate the Republican nominee, the people of Minnesota still get to choose their senator."

Copyright 2001 The Capital Times

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