Three or four months ago, Sen. Paul Wellstone phoned me and talked about the agonizing decision he had to make.
His dilemma is known to the people of Minnesota. When he first ran, Wellstone pledged to serve only two terms. He meant it. It is a tempting statement for any candidate to make -- but one that should not be made. No one knows the circumstances he or she may face in a few years.
I encouraged Paul to run again, primarily for one reason: The quality that is most needed -- and missing -- in government is one that he has in abundance: courage. To much too great an extent, we have leaders who are that in name only. They pander rather than lead.
If the latest polls show that XYZ is popular, they endorse XYZ and make high-sounding speeches for XYZ. That may be a good way to get elected or re-elected, but it is not leadership.
All people in public life are sensitive to opinion, but when polls become a substitute for studying an issue, when focus groups count more than conviction, then we have wandered dangerously far from the intentions of those who founded our nation.
Paul Wellstone's voice also is one that speaks strongly for the lost and the least in our society, rather than for the whims of those who finance political campaigns. The Wellstone stands help to give our nation balance, important for our conscience and important for our economy.
Whenever we give opportunity to those who struggle most, virtually all they receive in income is put back into the economy immediately. Like Social Security payments, their income helps to stabilize the economy. Provide those same resources in tax breaks for the highest on the income ladder and some will be spent. But in times of recession, more will be saved, providing less stimulus to the economy.
It is true that our savings rate is not what it should be. That should be addressed, but not in this way. The main beneficiary of tax changes in the past two decades have been those of us who are more fortunate. We need greater balance, and Wellstone helps to provide that.
A Senate filled with Paul Wellstones (or Paul Simons) would not be good. In the 1964 election, the Illinois House of Representatives found itself with a two-thirds Democratic majority, a result not in the best interests of good government. Almost anything with a Democratic label could pass. The result would have been no better with a similar lop-sided Republican majority.
But a legislative body needs a few Paul Wellstones in both parties, people who do not worship at the shrine of accepted wisdom, and sometimes risk political oblivion with their courage.
Illustrative of his courage is the vote in 1996 when he faced re-election against a substantial and respected candidate. A measure that received the tag "welfare reform" from the media came before the Senate. Everyone is for welfare reform; but everything that carries that label is not genuine reform.
Private discussions in the Senate indicated many senators had misgivings about the measure, but even more had misgivings about facing an opponent who would have a 30-second commercial attacking them for opposing "welfare reform." It passed and became law -- and only one senator up for re-election that year had the courage to vote against it: Paul Wellstone.
Unless the law is changed, many of the poor least able to cope will face severe problems when the complete impact of that act goes into effect.
An interview with a Texas insurance executive recently crossed my desk in which he praised the courage of six senators and former senators, Paul Wellstone among them.
Before I left the Senate, Congress took action to provide minimum protections in insurance coverage for those suffering from mental illness. Who provided the leadership on this? Two Republican senators -- Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Alan Simpson of Wyoming -- and one Democrat, Paul Wellstone.
How many votes did that get him in Minnesota? Probably less than none. The people whom he helped are not likely to know it, but the insurance lobby which disliked the measure does know about it.
A few weeks ago, I called the Wellstone office to see if we could get him to speak at Southern Illinois University where I teach. His office regretted because his schedule called for him to be in Oklahoma to be inducted into the collegiate wrestling hall of fame.
A more important hall of fame beckons him, one that is located only in the hearts and minds of people who want sensible, compassionate, courageous leadership.
Minnesota has a tradition of returning its finest senators to that body. I hope you will continue that tradition.
Paul Simon (e-mail: email@example.com), a former U.S. senator, is director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.