Saturday, July 9, 2011

Political Dinosaurs In Minnesota

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is going through a difficult period in his quest for the Republican nomination for president, although only days ago he had acquired some positive momentum with a speech in Chicago on economic policy. This momentum was lost when he ill-advisedly attacked GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for “Obamneycare” and then backed away from confronting the former Massachusetts governor. Since that time, Mr. Pawlenty has seemed less sure of himself, and is now the object of some negative media scrutiny.

I have long suggested, however, that Mr. Pawlenty has been generally lucky in this campaign, and that he he has shown not only some original rhetorical approaches, but a gift, already evident in his time as governor, for the felicitous phrase.

The fiscal impasse in his home state between a liberal Democratic governor who wants to “tax the rich,” and a conservative Republican legislature which refuses to raise taxes and wants to slash state spending may provide Mr. Pawlenty with another lucky break.

That is because, instead of dodging the impasse, Mr. Pawlenty has waded into it, recalling for a national audience his eight-year role of not allowing tax increases in the state, and for holding back spending increases. When a group of aging politicians, once prominent in state politics, formed a committee to propose a “third way out” of the impasse, Mr. Pawlenty pounced with one of his trademark political zingers, describing the proposals of the group as a “visit to Jurassic Park.”

These aging politicians included no less than former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Governor Arne Carlson and former U.S. Senator David Durenberger. The latter two served as moderate Republicans; Mondale, of course, served lifelong as a liberal Democrat. All three, however, have moved to, or remained on, the left since leaving office. Mr. Mondale, it should be remembered, sealed the fate of his 1984 presidential bid by proclaiming on national TV that he would raise income taxes. (In full disclosure, I endorsed both Carlson and Durenberger in a newspaper I edited and published in Minneapolis when they first ran for office, and I have praised Mr. Mondale for his long and distinguished public service, culminating with his superb job as U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton. Mr. Carlson, who served as Minnesota governor 1991-1999, was, in my opinion, an excellent governor.}

But that was then. Now these gentlemen have weighed in on the current crisis with sincere but outdated ideas of what constitutes a “compromise” to resolve the impasse. Much of their compromise proposal is conventional, i.e., raising the user taxes on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, lowering the state’s (high) overall sales tax, but broadening it to include items not now taxed, and lowering state spending (the most realistic part). But a final and key component of their “third way” budget resolution is to add a temporary 4% increased income tax liability to all Minnesotans. Their rationale for this was that “everyone should be part of the solution.” Governor Dayton promptly thanked the group, composed mostly of those who supported him or his Independence Party opponent, but not the Republican candidate, in the last election, and strongly rejected the 4% tax increase, saying he wanted only rich Minnesota taxpayers to help pay for the budget shortfall. Republicans predictably rebuffed the whole proposal.

I do think this committee meant well, but being composed mostly of politicians of the past, they simply did not understand the nature of the dispute. Governor Pawlenty’s phrase describing the “third way” proposal as a visit to Jurassic Park captured the sense that those who see increased taxes as a viable component of a solution to the impasse are, in effect, political dinosaurs, living in a past age.

There seems to be some misunderstanding in the national media that Minnesota is still the “liberal” state it was twenty-five years ago in the era when Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale were national figures from the state. Mr. Pawlenty is being a bit disingenuous when he describes Minnesota as a “blue” state as, for example, Massachusetts still is. Until 2010, no Democrat had been elected governor of Minnesota since 1986. After 1990, Minnesota had numerous Republican U.S. senators, as well as U.S. members of Congress. Minnesota cannot be described as a “red” state, it is true, but it has become more of a centrist state. In fact, statewide polls reveal that the largest bloc of voters (about 40%) consider themselves independents. Since 1998 (when Jesse Ventura was elected governor), the centrist Independence Party has meant the difference in all of the gubernatorial races, as well as some of the senate and congressional races.

The lesson of the 2010 national and state elections was that most voters have reached the end of the road in their toleration of tax-and-spend post-New Deal economics. Accumulated entitlements over the past 50 years have brought the nation to the brink of economic failure, with deficits, unfunded liabilities and the cost of government and bureaucracy out of control. The imposition of Obamacare, or mandated federal health insurance, was the final straw as voters revolted, putting Republicans promising no more tax increases, reduced spending and smaller government back in Washington, DC and many state capitals.

Any resolution to the impasse in Minnesota will have to take this political reality into account. Accusing Republican legislators of being unwilling to compromise because they refuse to raise taxes is to try to pretend that 2010 did not happen. Mr. Obama and Mr. Dayton, are both proponents of “tax the rich” redistributionist economics that had a heyday in the 1930’s, but they sound increasingly “prehistoric” to the voters of today. Republicans in the U.S. Congress or in the Minnesota legislature who would accede to this kind of economics would almost instantly feel the wrath of the persons who count most in this whole confrontation, the electorate.

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