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Let’s work this out together - seriously

Date Published: 11/29/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President


A review of Minnesota history and election results shows wisdom of ‘doubling down’ on bipartisanship

Let’s give thanks that despite the bitter conflicts since the beginning of our nation and state, our eternally feuding political ideologies and parties have patched over seemingly irreconcilable differences to achieve some amazing consensus.

Among these feats:

• The Civil Rights Act in 1964, which was sometimes violently opposed by Southern conservatives.
• A thorough overhaul in the 1990s of welfare benefits, which was strongly opposed by liberals.
• Ultimate victory in a 40-year Cold War struggle against world communism, during which Republicans and Democrats took turns accusing each other of criminal incompetence or even treason.

In Minnesota, the leaders of our warring parties in our recent past have also found a way, despite themselves, to reach agreement and serve the mainstream consensus.

Among these examples:

• A “Minnesota Miracle” in 1971 that dramatically increased funding and fiscal equality for public schools, despite initial conservative opposition.
• A gradual decline in business and individual tax-rate rankings and a slowing of government growth, despite liberal resistance.
• A MinnesotaCare program in 1992 providing health care for working families, creating one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation, against initial Republican opposition.
• A set of nation-leading renewable energy goals that was actually supported by conservative Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

One of the truest truisms of all time is that “If it’s happened before, it will happen again.”

That applies to good things as well as bad, to concord and progress as well as division and decline. And all we have to do this time is balance our budgets.

And so, despite all current signs pointing toward catastrophic gridlock in St. Paul and in Washington, D.C.-and in the midst of hyperventilated recount hostility here in Minnesota-let’s all e-mail our elected officials over the next month and implore them to commit themselves to solutions and compromise and balance.

We can urge them to resist the demands of the interest groups that got them elected, and to show selflessness and courage and patriotism to bring us together.

And we can start to ask political leaders never to claim to have a mandate, unless they have certified election results showing, say, at least 60 percent support for their specific position or principle.

Nothing frustrates consensus-seeking quite as much as puffed-up pride over achieving a narrow election victory and then acting as if “the people have spoken.”

Averaging the results over the last few years, no party or ideology has a right to claim a clear and lasting mandate. We didn’t have one in 2008, and we don’t have one now.

In the wake of the sweeping victories in 2008 by Democrats, I wrote a commentary for Capitol Report noting that the expected wipeout of conservatives and Republicans in Minnesota did not materialize, and that they held on to veto-proof minorities in the Legislature and other important political turf.

I suggested that “the big blue wave nationally turned out to be more of a storm surge than a tsunami in the North Star State.” Minnesota remained a “purplish blue” state.

Pretty much the same can be said of the big red wave in 2010, which actually was not quite as strong as the 2008 blue wave. Media coverage has tended to overstate the results as a historic shift, attributing too much meaning to the new Republican control of the state Senate for the first time in 38 years and control of the House after just four years of DFL control.

But the analysts seem to be missing these important facts about the 2010 results, all of which point to ambivalence rather than a mandate:

• Gov. (almost)-elect Mark Dayton’s officially recountable margin is only a half-percentage point smaller than Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s extremely thin re-election margin in 2006, when Democrats took a U.S. Senate seat by a large margin (Sen. Amy Klobuchar) and made big gains in both the state House and Senate. No governor since the decidedly moderate Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994 has had a majority vote, and Dayton will have as hard a time as Republicans claiming a mandate.
• DFLers soon will control the top three statewide offices (governor and both U.S. Senate seats) for the first time since 1978. Democrats actually got more votes than Republicans in six of seven major fields of battle, including all four statewide constitutional offices (governor/lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, and secretary of state), total votes for Congressional candidates, and total votes for state senators.
• Only in total votes for state House candidates did Republicans get more votes statewide. The new GOP majorities are hanging on a few hundred votes in about a dozen districts that could easily go the other way in 2012.
• And on the central issue of whether to raise revenue to balance the state budget, the people seem to have uttered, once again, a mixed message. Although the voters elected many Republicans who were relentlessly attacking DFLers as overspenders, about 56 percent of them also opted for two gubernatorial candidates (Dayton and Tom Horner of the Independence Party), who repeatedly and emphatically said they would raise taxes to help balance the historic projected $6 billion shortfall.

One reason for hope is that the three top players - presumptive Gov. Mark Dayton, Senate Majority Leader-designate Amy Koch, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers - are all brand new in their jobs and brand new to each other.

This is a trio of smart and tough new leaders, but each has demonstrated flexibility and independent thinking in the past. They can start off on the right foot by reaching agreement quickly on how to balance the hopefully modest shortfall in the current budget period.

Meanwhile, the pressure for brinksmanship and fighting to the end or toward government shutdown is strong as ever.

Already we’ve heard from the left harsh criticism of President Barack Obama for pledging to “double down” on bipartisanship. And we saw pre-election blasts from the right against new U.S. House Speaker-designate John Boehner for even suggesting a compromise on ending tax cuts for the wealthy.

Healthier perspectives were offered this week in separate op-eds by conservative columnist David Brooks and liberal columnist Bob Herbert.

Brooks wrote that almost all other democracies in the world are cutting spending and raising taxes to balance their budgets, and that “few [countries] are immobilized as the United States is.”  Herbert evoked the spirit of John F. Kennedy, elected 50 years ago this month, for inspiring a public willingness by Americans to both cooperate and sacrifice to “improve their circumstances, right wrongs and do good.”

We would do well to heed such words - in Minnesota and nationally.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Leagal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, November 29, 2010.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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