SYNOPSIS: Krugman remembers Paul Wellstone, the honest and courageous Senator from Minnesota
Ghoulish but true: as Minnesota mourns the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, many of the state's residents have been receiving fliers bearing a picture of a tombstone. The fliers, sent out by a conservative business group, denounce the late senator's support for maintaining the estate tax. Under the tombstone, the text reads in part: "Paul Wellstone not only wants to tax you and your business to death . . . he wants to tax you in the hereafter."
To be fair, the people who mailed out those fliers — which are carefully worded so that the cost of the mailing doesn't officially count as a campaign contribution — didn't know how tasteless they would now appear. Yet in a sense the mass mailing is a fitting epitaph; it reminds us what Paul Wellstone stood for, and how brave he was to take that stand.
Sometimes it seems as if Americans have forgotten what courage means. Here's a hint: talking tough doesn't make you a hero; you have to take personal risks. And I'm not just talking about physical risks — though it's striking how few of our biggest flag wavers have ever put themselves in harm's way. What we should demand of our representatives in Washington is the willingness to take political risks — to make a stand on principle, even if it means taking on powerful interest groups.
Paul Wellstone took risks. He was, everyone acknowledges, a politician who truly voted his convictions, who supported what he thought was right, not what he thought would help him get re-elected. He took risky stands on many issues: agree or disagree, you have to admit that his vote against authorization for an Iraq war was a singularly brave act. Yet the most consistent theme in his record was economic — his courageous support for the interests of ordinary Americans against the growing power of our emerging plutocracy.
In our money-dominated politics, that's a dangerous position to take. When Mr. Wellstone first ran for the Senate, his opponent outspent him seven to one. According to one of his advisers, the success of that ramshackle campaign, run from a rickety green school bus, "made politics safe for populists again."
If only. Almost every politician in modern America pretends to be a populist; indeed, it's a general rule that the more slavishly a politician supports the interests of wealthy individuals and big corporations, the folksier his manner. But being a genuine populist, someone who really tries to stand up against what Mr. Wellstone called "Robin Hood in reverse" policies, isn't easy: you must face the power not just of money, but of sustained and shameless hypocrisy.
And that's why those fliers are a perfect illustration of what Paul Wellstone was fighting.
On one side, the inclusion of estate tax repeal in last year's federal tax cut is the most striking example to date of how our political system serves the interests of the wealthy. After all, the estate tax affects only a small minority of families; the bulk of the tax is paid by a tiny elite. In fact, estate tax repeal favors the wealthy to such an extent that defenders of last year's tax cut — like Senator Charles Grassley, who published a misleading letter in last Friday's Times — always carefully omit it from calculations of who benefits. (The letter talked only about the income tax; had he included the effects of estate tax repeal, he would have been forced to admit that more than 40 percent of the benefits of that tax cut go to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.) To eliminate the estate tax in the face of budget deficits means making the rich richer even as we slash essential services for the middle class and the poor.
On the other side, the estate tax debate illustrates the pervasive hypocrisy of our politics. For repeal of the "death tax" has been cast, incredibly, as a populist issue. Thanks to sustained, lavishly financed propaganda — of which that anti-Wellstone flier was a classic example — millions of Americans imagine, wrongly, that the estate tax mainly affects small businesses and farms, and that its repeal will help ordinary people. And who pays for the propaganda? Guess. It's amazing what money can buy.
In an age of fake populists, Paul Wellstone was the real thing. Now he's gone. Will others have the courage to carry on?
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.29.02