Conservatives Warn of “Wellstone Effect”

Right wing talkers worry that Kennedy's death will advance Dem's health care proposals

Key conservative voices have begun to charge in the day after Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death that Democrats are inappropriately politicizing the senator’s death, his memorial and his legacy.

Kennedy was that ultimate political creature, a “lion of the Senate,” and the last son of the archetypal American political family — his passing is inevitably political. In his final days, he focused on a narrow political goal, pleading with state leaders to change state law to posthumously fill his Senate seat with an interim appointee who would be a vote in favor of the health care legislation he championed.

So his allies on the left have made no secret of their hopes that his legacy will serve to bolster the uncertain health reform plan, with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) even suggesting the bill be named for Kennedy.

And that has some influential conservative voices sounding the alarm and calling foul.

While most prominent Republicans stuck Wednesday and Thursday to sober condolences — and several Republican operatives said it was too early to accuse Democrats of politicizing a sad moment —the conservative media, as well as some operatives, has seized on the whiff of politicization of his passing, recalling the bitter charges and countercharges that followed Sen. Paul Wellstone’s (D-Minn.) memorial service in 2002.

That service, a sometimes boisterous rally that included calls to carry on Wellstone’s political legacy and some catcalls for Republican speakers, turned the memorial into a central campaign issue, and many observers think the still-disputed event helped elect a Republican to fill his seat.

"Placing [Kennedy’s] name on a health-care bill, in memoriam, or using his name as a sympathy ploy to advance a health care bill that would deny Americans the choices Sen. Kennedy had is an insult and is supreme hypocrisy,” the talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Wednesday. 'The senator's passing is going to give them the opportunity to use the sympathy play to get as much done in his name as possible."

"No government was a partner with God in Ted Kennedy's death. To put his name on this current health-care bill would be to insult what he stood for,” Limbaugh said.

Another leading conservative media figure, Sean Hannity, recalled the Wellstone memorial.

“Remember Paul Wellstone's death? You know, 'Let's do everything for Paul.' And we're now being implored to get behind Obamacare because it's what Ted Kennedy would have wanted,” he said, according to the liberal media monitor Media Matters, which is in turn suggesting that conservatives have crossed the line with allegations of politicization.

The H.S.A. Coalition, a lobbying group devoted to tax-free health savings accounts — championed by conservatives as a health care solution — warned supporters to “watch for the Wellstone effect.” 

“The Democrats should remember their experience with the Senator Wellstone funeral,” wrote the group’s president, Dan Perrin. “While I disagreed with almost everything Senator Kennedy stood for, the MSM [mainstream media] subjecting the country to a Senator Wellstone type funeral experience, would be using him like a cheap suit.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who now heads the socially conservative group American Values, echoed Limbaugh’s charge in an e-mail to supporters Wednesday.

“The first news most Americans heard this morning was the announcement that Senator Ted Kennedy had passed away after his 15-month battle with brain cancer. The second thing most Americans heard was a shameless attempt by Big Media “talking heads” and liberal politicians to exploit his death by suggesting that America should honor the senator by stopping the debate and passing ‘healthcare reform,’” he wrote. “No one who was against another Big Government power grab when Ted Kennedy was alive should now toss their principles out of the window and cave in just because he has passed away. In fact, the Left and their media shills should be ashamed of themselves for exploiting his death in such a crass and cynical way.”

And the claim echoed through the conservative blogosphere. The widely read Instapundit suggested, linking another blogger, that Kennedy’s death would trigger “a Wellstone memorial on steroids,” a suggestion echoed in various forms on many lesser-read blogs.

Bill Hillsman, an independent political consultant in Minnesota who did ads for Wellstone in 1990, said he didn’t think the charges would stick.

"I'm not sure [conservatives] are going to have the same traction here as they did with Wellstone's memorial," he said. "That memorial really did turn into a cheerleading session to elect Walter Mondale. I don't think Ted Kennedy's memorial is going to be a cheerleading session for health care."

The circumstances of Wellstone’s own memorial, not unlike Kennedy’s, remain contested, and Democrats led by Sen. Al Franken — who retook Wellstone’s seat last fall — have fought for their version of its legacy.

Though Republicans successfully made the case that Democrats were exploiting his sudden death —overnight Democratic polling reportedly showed voters strongly believed the service was over the top —Wellstone’s family and close supporters said inappropriate boos came from just a few spectators in a packed arena, and that there was nothing wrong with using a crusading senator’s death to prolong his life’s work. Democrats, in turn, accused the Republicans of politicizing the memorial.

“The irony is that because they weren't thinking politically, they opened themselves to being accused of staging a political event,” Franken, who retook Wellstone’s seat six years later, wrote of the event.

“It was the Republicans that tried to cheapen Paul Wellstone's life by dishonoring his death. It was the right-wing media, not the friends and family who spoke at the memorial or the people who came to it, that seized an opportunity to use a tragedy for political gain.”

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