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With the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, we may have seen the last of a rare Washington political animal -- a Democrat with the courage of his convictions. (Most of his colleagues have neither courage nor convictions.)
Wellstone was an unapologetic liberal -- at least by today's standards -- and may have been the most politically principled member of the U.S. Senate. His votes were dictated by his conscience, not by polls and focus groups, and he didn't worry about the political consequences.
He was the exception this election year until his life ended in a tragic plane crash. Most Democratic Senate candidates are running scared on war with Iraq, tax cuts, gun control and other controversial issues they fear could cost them votes. They're taking their cues from their party's craven congressional leaders in Washington, who most recently capitulated on Iraq and gave President Bush the war resolution he demanded. They said they wanted to get Iraq off the table so they could engage Republicans on economic issues where they believe Democrats would have the advantage. Some of us assumed that meant Democrats were eager to move the president's irresponsible tax cuts to the center of the political debate.
But that's not what is happening. Democratic candidates are either running for cover on the Bush tax cuts or openly embracing them.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein wrote: "Prospects are dimming that Democrats can challenge President Bush's tax cut, the centerpiece of his economic agenda, even if they maintain or enlarge their Senate majority. That's because almost all of the Democratic challengers with a plausible chance of capturing Republican Senate seats in Tuesday's election have embraced the tax cut -- to the point where several are running ads touting their support for it."
For months now Democratic leaders have been blaming Bush's 10-year, $1.35-trillion tax cut for the return of budget deficits and for the sluggish economy. But they have failed to articulate a serious alternative to the president's economic plan. So on the two issues most on the mind of American voters -- war with Iraq and the economy -- Democrats have failed to offer voters a clear choice in this election.
Regardless of which party winds up with control of the Senate, according to Brownstein, leading Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota are now resigned to the fact that the tax cuts will stand. If that's the case, Democrats will find it difficult to come up with the money to finance their domestic spending priorities.
"On the most imminent choice facing Washington in the years ahead, Bush appears to have won the argument before a new Congress even convenes," Brownstein wrote.
Every Democrat running for the Senate this year should ask themselves this question: What would Paul Wellstone do?
The answer is simple: He would stick to his convictions and damn the political fallout.
They're back -- John McCain and Russ Feingold.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this year banned the unlimited and unregulated "soft money" donations that allowed candidates and political parties to circumvent limits on direct campaign contributions. Having restricted the supply of political money, the senators are now pushing legislation to reduce the demand for it.
This could be an even tougher fight. This time, they are taking on the broadcasting industry.
Their legislation would require broadcasters to air a minimum of two hours per week of candidate and issue programming in the last six weeks of an election. It would be up to the nation's 1,300 television stations and 12,000 local radio stations to decide how to meet the law's requirement. They could air debates, town hall meetings, candidate interviews or anything else that promotes political debate. The only requirements are that the segments must include a candidate discussing an issue and that at least half of the segments must air in or near prime time.
"The cost of air time is the largest expense in modern political campaigns, and has been rising at a breakneck pace for a generation," says Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.
"In the 2002 campaign, candidates, parties and issue groups will spend an estimated $1-billion to air more than 1.5-million broadcast television ads, a four-fold increase over what they spent in the 1982 campaign, even after adjusting for inflation. The high cost of getting a message out on the nation's most important communications medium prevents good people from seeking office, makes campaigns less competitive and voters less engaged, and helps keep the special interests in the driver's seat."
To many broadcasters, elections are little more than a profit center. Even as they reap huge profits from political ads, many local television stations have been cutting back on campaign coverage. Part of those profits will now be used to employ an army of powerful Washington lobbyists to beat back the latest McCain-Feingold campaign reform effort.
This debate is long overdue.