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Political Ed-ucation

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I'm probably one of the few people who'll miss Gov. Ed Rendell when he's gone. He didn't always make great policy, but he was always a source of good copy. 

Take, for example, his pre-election claim on CNN that Democrats are "a bunch of wusses." 

Democrats, Rendell said, were mistakenly running away from accomplishments like health-care reform. "If we're going to go down," he argued, "we should go down over things we believe in." 

That's political courage, Democrat-style: When all hope is lost, you may as well stick with your convictions. 

It would be even better, of course, to fight "over things we believe in" when we actually have a chance of winning. Even a wuss, after all, can cling to ideals when there's nothing to lose.

But that never seems to happen. The Obama administration's craven failure to abolish the military's homophobic Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy is one example. Rendell's recent decision to ban natural-gas drilling in state forests -- a move he could have made long ago, and that will be overturned by his successor in two months -- is another.

But then Rendell is the same guy who tried to ram Arlen Specter down Democrats' throats in this year's Senate race. It's true that the candidate who beat Specter in the Democratic primary, Joe Sestak, lost to Republican Pat Toomey. But when you compare Sestak to the other candidate Rendell backed statewide, gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato, Sestak did pretty well. He won Allegheny County, for starters -- which is more than Onorato, the county's chief executive, managed to do. Statewide, Onorato lost by 9 percentage points: Sestak kept the race within 2. 

And the Sestak/Toomey race was perhaps unique in modern political history: a race in which almost all the attack ads were true. Toomey really is a toady for Wall Street. And Sestak really was to the left of his party leaders. Among other things, he was a strident opponent of Don't Ask/Don't Tell, and a supporter of abortion rights who, unlike Onorato, didn't feel a need to whisper about the issue. 

Some Dems are lamenting that Sestak could have won had he been more moderate. But if he'd been any more moderate, he probably wouldn't have run at all. And those who supported Sestak all the way through have at least one consolation: We actually got to win a round by sticking to our beliefs.

And for us, even the Nov. 2 election has some bittersweet consolation. For one thing, it's not like our most cherished causes -- reform of the financial sector, for example, or a single-payer plan -- were doing all that well anyway. 

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, a Lawrenceville Democrat who is among Harrisburg's most progressive politicians, was comparatively upbeat when I caught up with him at a Nov. 3 march to protest natural-gas drilling. Asked whether Republican gains made it harder to fight on environmental issues, Ferlo shrugged. 

"I'm worried about who is going to be the next head of the Department of Environmental Protection," he admitted. "But even Democrats have not been our allies. I spend half my time fighting the Coal Caucus, most of whom are Democrats." 

I'm not trying to minimize the disaster that is about to unfold, in Pennsylvania or across the country. After a few months of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, I suspect, you'll be missing Rendell, too. And on the national level, we'll likely move from a half-hearted effort to address global climate change to no effort at all.

Even something as bipartisan as hatred of Wall Street will be ignored. Toomey, for one, has long opposed efforts to make Wall Street more transparent. As a Congressman in 2000, he argued that requiring more disclosure from giant hedge funds might "put American financial institutions at a competitive disadvantage relative to competitors from Europe and Asia." Nice to see that there were at least some jobs he didn't want to see move overseas. 

Pundits will insist Democrats have to "move to the center" now. I'm not even sure what that means anymore. Republicans, after all, are pledging to repeal health-care reforms based on proposals championed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney -- who could be the GOP's next presidential contender. 

The better advice for Democrats, I think, is to not be wusses. Only this time, get started a little earlier.

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