Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Last Hurrah of Jesse Ventura

Whatever the verdict in the libel case against Chris Kyle, Jesse Ventura has lost.  He had lost years before the trial and everyone knew that except for Ventura himself.  In so many ways this trial revealed that Ventura came to believe all the hype about himself that he was a popular and respected political figure.  The reality is that he was never the icon that the media and he made himself out to be and this trial is Ventura's last gasp for fame.
            The basis of Ventura’s lawsuit against Chris Kyle, to quote his legal complaint, is that the published statements in his book the American Sniper “negatively affected, and will continue to negatively affect Governor Ventura in connection with his businesses and professions, including but not limited to his current and future opportunities as a political candidate, political commentator, author, speaker, television host and personality.”  Ventura denies that he made disparaging remarks about other Navy Seals and that Kyle knocked him down.  Ventura asserts that Kyle knew these statements were false, and therefore they damaged Ventura’s career.
            Whatever damage that has come to Ventura’s career was mostly self-inflicted.  Yes, Ventura was elected governor, but remember first that he received only 37% of the vote–63% of Minnesotans  did not vote for him.  He ran at a time with nearly a $5 billion state surplus and an unemployment rate of 2.2%. Ventura benefitted from great economic times, a popular but largely unknown political persona, disenchantment with the establishment candidates of Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman,  and promises to give the entire surplus if elected.  He ran against government.
            One interpretation of his victory was that 37% of the voters gave the state the middle finger.  Ventura’s initial popularity  as governor soared to record levels, but that was a consequence of him giving tax rebates or “Jesse checks” back to voters along with a careful national media campaign that fawned over him.  By the time he left office his popularity had dramatically fallen, in part as a result of actions taken by Mr. Ventura himself.  These actions may have included his public performance as governor as well as personal behavior in hosting events such as XFL football, his famous Playboy interview, or his combative posture that he took with the media and with political opponents.  By the time he left office as governor his popularity was wearing thin, and had he decided to run for governor in 2002 it is uncertain whether he would have been re-elected.
            In the decade since Mr. Ventura left office he has taken a series of actions that have probably done damage to his political fortunes.  His comments about the war in Iraq, 9/11, his failed television shows, boorish interviews, bland books, and moving to Baja, Mexico have all made him less of a popular figure than in the past.   Also, continuing the law suit against Kyle’s widow after he was murdered did not help.  The morally decent thing to do would have been to drop the case and walk away.  But he did not and that decision too has not helped Ventura’s reputation.  What made Ventura so interesting and successful initially was his ability to combine his entertainment pop culture persona with politics; his politainer status as I once argued.  But now it is boring and predictable–every time he says he is going to run for office again or every time he makes a media appearance it is for self-promotional purposes. 
            What Ventura most wants but cannot get is to be relevant and taken seriously.  The lawsuit against Chris Kyle is about relevance, but it also about vanity or ego.  If Kyle  is telling the truth, he decked Ventura, bruising the latter’s ego before fellow Navy Seals.  That he could not take, nor could he take that Kyle’s book was selling but his were not.  They were just ignored.  And even as Kyle’s book came out he was ignored–his reputation was largely unaffected.
            Two surveys by Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely show that Kyle’s book had no impact on Ventura’s reputation. The first one was dated June 6, 2011, before Chris Kyle’s book came out.  The second survey is dated October 8, 2012, several months after the book was published.  Among the many questions that PPP asked Minnesotans was "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jesse Ventura?" 
            In the first poll 29% said "Favorable, "58% said "Unfavorable," and 13% said "Not sure."  The poll was subject to a margin of error of  +/-2.9%. In the second poll 29% said "Favorable, "53% said "Unfavorable," and 18% said "Not sure."  The poll was subject to a margin of error of  +/-3.2%. There was no change in  aggregate public opinion regarding Ventura's favorable views between the time before Kyle's book and several months afterwards.  More importantly, the second poll reveals a 5% decrease in Ventura's unfavorable views between the time before Kyle's book and several months afterwards, along with a shift of opinion away from unfavorable to undecided.  Given the margins of error in the two polls, it is either possible that:  1) Ventura's unfavorable views decreased after Kyle’s book; or 2) there was no real change in public opinion attitudes among Minnesotans regarding Ventura as a result of Kyle's book. 
            These two polls therefore suggest that Kyle’s book had no real aggregate impact in terms of damaging Ventura's reputation, at least in Minnesota. Perhaps that was the case because largely Minnesotans’ views on Ventura have largely been made up, or perhaps no one is really paying attention to him anymore.  Given that PPP no longer asks about Ventura, that itself may speak to his irrelevance.
            Ventura’s lawsuit was a cry for help.  It was a last gasp to take him seriously and be relevant.

Note:  This essay originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on July 24, 2014.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Note on the Hobby Lobby Disinformation Industry

“The contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA.”
Justice Alito for the majority in Burwell v Hobby Lobby.

    The Hobby Lobby decision has spurred a lot of disinformation, some of it from those who distort the decision to downplay its real holding and its broader implications (or it is form those who just do not understand legal reasoning). The disinformation machine works by attacking its critics with assertions or distinctions that really are immaterial. A previous blog of mine entitled “Five votes. Five Catholics. Five men: What is Wrong with the Hobby Lobby Decision” along with a Minnpost op-ed I penned  were attacked along this line where I was accused of not reading the decision or being dishonest about what it said.
    One way to distort Hobby Lobby was highlighted by no less than Fox’s rocket scientist Megyn Kelly who contended that Hobby Lobby and the other plaintiff’s only objected to four of the 20 contraceptive drugs.  They did so because those four drugs may have the ability to act as an abortifacient. While this is true factually it is immaterial to the holding in the case.  The Supreme Court did not rule that the Affordable Care Act’s (more specifically, the HHS rule) contraceptive mandate as it applies only to abortion violated RFRA. Instead, as noted in the quote from the majority opinion, they ruled that the entire contraceptive mandate as applied to closely held corporations violated RFRA.  While Hobby Lobby may only have had objections to abortion the Court went further in invalidating the entire contraceptive mandate (as applied to closely-held corporations).  Thus whatever Hobby Lobby may have narrowly objected to, that is not what the Court ruled on.  Its decision was broader.
    Thus, one spin in this case is to say it is about abortion and not contraception in general.  The actual holding in the case does not make that distinction.  Moreover, such a distinction is not even material.  The four drugs objected to by Hobby Lobby and other plaintiffs, as the Court points out, “may” serve as abortifacients.  It is also the case that they may not do that.  What the majority allows for is an employer to inquire or second guess medical treatment of women and say they do not want to pay for certain drugs because they may do certain things such as potentially induce abortions.  Further, by the actual language of the Alito opinion, there is nothing to prevent a employer in a closely-held corporation from objecting to all of the contraceptive mandate, including all of the 20 drugs referred to in the opinion. 
    Even further, while the decision only applies to contraceptives, there is nothing in the decision that closes the door to objections to other medical treatments such as vaccinations.   While the majority contends that under RFRA there may be other compelling governmental interests that outweigh religious objections to them, the Court did not (and could not) in this case say that if adjudicated these religious objections would not be upheld.  Finally, while the majority opinion said that the case only applied to closely-held corporations, the language of RFRA and the decision itself does not foreclose application to all corporations.  The majority merely at this point said it neither knew of nor thought that many public corporations would have such religious objections.  Again, the Court did not rule and say that RFRA would protect them if they had such an objection, but they also  correctly did not preclude such a possibility.
    As any good lawyer knows, cases have facts and sometimes courts decide narrowly based on them.  This is what lower courts do.  But appellate courts such as the Supreme Court do more than make narrow factual rulings, They decide cases that are often broader than the facts in the case and have broader precedent than what the litigants want.  This is the case with Hobby Lobby. As you listen to the Hobby Lobby disinformation machine please note what the Court actually ruled and think also about the legal implications of the decision.  It is far different from what the Megyn Kelly’s of the world spin.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Five votes. Five Catholics. Five men: What is Wrong with the Hobby Lobby Decision

Five votes.  Five Catholics.  Five men.  One decision.  Potentially millions of American women denied contraceptive coverage.  This what the recent Hobby Lobby decision is about, but it also reveals three deeper problems–the sexism pervading the current Supreme Court along with its religious parochialism, a serious problem with the role that religion has come to occupy in American society, and the elevation of corporate rights and power that is strangling American society. 
    Burwell  v. Hobby Lobby tested the constitutionality of a requirement of the ACA that employer health care insurance include coverage for contraception. Owners of a corporation named Hobby Lobby  contended that such a mandate violated their free exercise rights protected under both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  In agreeing with the owners, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision made several leaps of logic.
    First, the majority opinion looked to the text of RFRA.  The law states that: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”  The first question was whether the law’s reference to “person” also included corporations.  The Court said yes.  It did that by making two arguments.  One was to ask how a dictionary defined the word.  Employing the federal Dictionary Act as its guide the Court found that it defined person to include among other entities, corporations, companies, and partnerships.  The Court then asked whether there was any indication that in passing RFRA Congress intended to define person, other than found in the Act, to exclude corporations.  Finding no indication of that the Court said that RFRA protected the religious rights of corporations such as Hobby Lobby. Moreover, to the objection that corporations cannot exercise religion the Court responded by declaring “All of this is true—but quite beside the point. Corporations, ‘separate and apart from’ the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.”
    Second, the Court argued that creating a religious exemption under RFRA for a corporation  had already occurred under the ACA when Congress exempted religious non-profits from the contraception mandate.  Thus, given that there was no indication that Congress meant to exclude corporations from RFRA protection and that non-profits already were exempted from insurance mandate, this was enough for five Justices to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby.
    So think first about the sexism of the decision.  Five male Justices rule that it is ok for an employer to deny women contraceptive coverage.  Employers should not be making this decision–by this decision employer preferences are counted twice–employers get a vote about what they want to cover and their choice gets to trump that of women.  This is bad enough.  But the sexism is even worse–it is about not getting a clue.  Contraceptives are not just about birth control–they are about women’s health.  Many of the drugs used to prevent pregnancies also address other women’s health issues.  I doubt the Justices understand this (even if they care).  One wonders how they will feel about companies that will refuse contraceptive care but pay for Viagra.
    But the sexism is compounded by the Catholicism and religiosity of their votes.  All five guys in the majority are Catholics.  The Catholic Church opposes not just abortion but birth control.  These five Justices seemed simply to vote the sexist Catholic party line in their decision.  But taken further, the law at the basis of their decision–the Religious Freedom Restoration Action–appears to constitutionalize a religious veto into the law.  The law, and the Hobby Lobby decision, appear to be so solicitous to religion that one can argue that both have established religion into the law.  When the First Amendment was written it declared that “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion.”  But RFRA and the five Justice majority appear to have done that.  We need protection from the Court establishing its views of religion into the law. While it may be a subject for another column, a good argument can also be made that RFRA might itself violate the Establishment clause.
    Finally, Hobby Lobby adds a another dimension to corporate rights and personhood that connects back to Citizens United.  The Roberts Court seems consistently willing to privilege employers and corporations over that of workers and individuals.  Here, when the rights of corporate owners clashed with female workers it was the former who won.  More than 30 years ago political scientist Charles Lindblom contended that it was impossible to reconcile corporate power with democracy.  He was correct.  The powers given to property and corporations under the Roberts Court come at the expense of American democracy.  It is a failure to recognize that democracy needs to be protected from capitalism and the ability of those with money to convert their resources into political power.  Hobby Lobby is just another example of how some have confused the economic and political marketplaces.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Orthodox Republicanism after Eric Cantor

David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor should comfort neither establishment Republicans nor Democrats.  His victory portends threats to both parties.  For Republicans, it suggests a continued ideological divide, for Democrats, a vital threat in 2014 to the electoral prospects.

Until Brat’s victory, many declared dead the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party.  But the Tea Party is more than simply a group of people or a fringe organization.  It is an attitude and ideology. The Tea Party movement, with language describing some GOP members as RINOS (Republican in Name Only), questions the ideology and political views of party, raising the question:  What is orthodox Republicanism today?

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing for dominance.  Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of New Deal accommodation that Eisenhower, Jacob Javits, and the Nelson Rockefeller wing had reached.  Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech  declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservativism.  The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.  From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand defined the party.  But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan  brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead.  Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change, whatever it meant, was preferred to Reaganism.

But the seeds of Reagan’s demise in McCain’s 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin.  Palinism seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise..  Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra “I want my country back.”

Palin is toast, but her spirit lives on. The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality  a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism.  But Palinism is also built on what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled the paranoid style in American politics.  It is a anti-intellectual world view nurtured in fear–a fear that outside forces are threatening a way of life that includes faith in Christianity, capitalism, and the Constitutionalism.  This paranoid style, incubated in the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century as described by Perry Miller in his classic 1956 Errand into the Wilderness, was premised upon a theory of uncertainty of salvation, fear of evil, and the omnipresent threat of outsiders who were not part of the church and community.  For Hofstadter and Miller, the paranoid style of fear and prejudice produced notable events such as the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism.

Puritanism and the paranoid ethos both contain an orthodoxy and powerful internal contradictions. Both believe in the righteous and absolute certainty of their truths and in a demonification of challengers.  Both eschew reason for fear, and both necessitate a strong state to suppress evil and  preserve God and American values, even at the expense of freedom for some.  Facts are not important–they stand in the way of truth.   Liberals and MSNBC commentators fail to understand the Tea Party world view.  It is a new orthodoxy that goes right to the heart of politics, asking and questioning the most basic question, “Why government?”

This new orthodoxy draws its roots from this Puritanism and paranoid style .  But it is driven less so from the pulpit than by Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs in search of profits and ratings.  Tea Partyism is less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded a paranoid attitude mixed in with a branding effort to make money.  It is a brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear, so long as it sells.

The new orthodoxy has two wings–The libertarianism of Rand Paul committed to some type of libertarianism, and the Ted Cruz populist politics.  While both revolve around less government and less taxes, they differ on civil liberties and the role of the US in the world.  Whatever their anti-governmentism is, their views and that of many Tea Party members are hypocritical.  Yes less government and taxes, but still I deserve my Social Security check and Medicare because I deserve it, others do not.  There is also a hypocrisy in that the areas of the country that most strongly espouse  anti-government views are the ones with the greatest poverty, uninsured, lower per capita incomes, and the greatest percentage of money coming to their states from the federal government.  Less government for thee, not me.
So what orthodox Republicanism now?   Tea Party GOP rebranding is a multi-media cult of personality that draws upon the anger and fear of many that their way of life is threatened and that someone else is to blame for it.  If only government, gays, immigrants, abortionists, Democrats, and RINOS did not exist, we could take back our country and prosper again.  This is what orthodox Republicanism is, the marketing of a politics of fear.

For all of the contradictions within the new Republican orthodoxy, Democrats should not take comfort.  Yes such a new orthodoxy threats to split the Republican Party, sending them further to the right, putting them out of sync with the median voter, and thereby making it more difficult for them to win elections.   But this might only matter with national presidential elections.  As Democrats saw in 2010, turnout is lower in non-presidential elections years, benefitting Republicans.  What the Tea Party brings to the Republicans is passion–passion is essential to electoral success. Passionate candidates and voter win.  Democrats have little passion going for them in local races in non-presidential election years.  Moreover, today as it was back in 2010, Democrats lack a narrative to counteract the Tea Party.  Four years the Democrats ether lacked a narrative, or simply said the Tea Party was nuts, or they simply expected them to self-implode.  They are taking the same road again this year, perhaps with equally disastrous results.

The new Republican orthodoxy is the child of Obama–has taken up the banner of “change” and it  is using their narrative, also with fear, to advance an agenda that challenges the mainstream of both the Republican and Democratic parties

Monday, June 2, 2014

Handicapping the 2014 Minnesota Republican Chances

    The 2014 Minnesota election season has officially begun.  The legislative session is over, the candidate filing period has begun, and the Green and Independence parties have already had their nominating conventions and the Republicans just selected Mike McFadden and Jeff Johnson to challenge AL Franken and Mark Dayton for senator and governor respectively. The GOP convention also touched off the effort by the Republicans to reclaim the House of Representatives. Let’s consider some possibilities affecting the Republicans’ prospects this fall.  Two factors will be considered: The political math and the narrative.

Political Math
    First do the math.  Mark Dayton is the DFL incumbent who latest approval rating according to an April Survey USA poll was 49% (40% disapproval), down from a February Minnesota Poll that had him at 58% (29% disapproval).    The February Minnesota Poll had DFL incumbent  Senator Al Franken’s approval at 55% (34% disapproval) and the Survey USA poll placed him at  46% approval (42% disapproval).  Either these two polls reveal a shift in public opinion against them or different survey methodologies, questions, and margins of errors demonstrating small shifts in popularity.  In either case, Dayton looks far better in the polls than Franken, with the latter making some marginal if not significant gains in the polls compared to his narrow margin of victory six years ago.  But beyond the poll numbers, both candidates have significant fund raising leads over an possible opponents.
    All 134 members of the Minnesota House of Representatives are up for election.  The DFL hold a 73-61 majority.  Republicans need to pick up 7 seats to capture the majority. Fourteen  House members have announced retirements, 10 GOP and four DFL.  Open seats are generally easier to switch parties than those occupied by incumbents, however, not all of these seats are in swing districts.  Michael Paymar is retiring in St Paul and there is little chance the Republicans can pick up this seat.  Similarly Mary Liz Holberg is retiring from her seat in Lakeville and there is little chance for the DFL to pick this up.  Best estimates are that the total number of real swing seats is  in the range of 8-15 seats, with about 12 being the most likely number.  Thus, the GOP need to hold all their current seats, including open ones, and then pick up another seven to take control of the House.  Not an impossible task, but certainly a difficult one. 
    The State Republican Party is in better financial situation than it was two years ago but it is still not where it should be and it is probably behind the DFL in terms of fundraising.  The Republican House caucus may be doing better  in comparison and may get closer to what their DFL rivals have.  However, the issue is less in terms of how they are doing in fundraising overall but more in terms of how money may get channeled to specific House races.  Finally, there are unknown variables such as how recent court decisions striking down campaign finance laws may benefit either party.
    Finally, consider two last numbers.  First, Minnesota leads the nation in presidential voter turnout at 75.7% (2012).  In non-presidential or midterm elections the state still leads the nation but the turnout drops to 55% (2010).  Exit polls in presidential election years place the number of individuals who consider themselves to be DFLers at the 38-40% range, with the GOP coming in at 30-33%.  Independence Party members constitute about 10-12%, the Greens one percent, and about 20%  unaffiliated.  These are numbers than generally favor Democrats but in non-presidential election years much of the 20% drop in voter turnout comes from women, young voters, people of color, and the undecided.   Democrats nationally and in Minnesota face a problem motivating their base to vote in midterm elections, and they also struggle to capture the unaffiliated who often are  swing voters.  Midterm voters are older, whiter, and more conservative than presidential year voters.
    Second, the DFL will struggle with this electorate especially given the last important number–President Obama’s poor approval numbers.  The Minnesota poll has his approval at 43% and disapproval at 50%, and an April KSTP poll has a more questionable 36% approval and a 54% disapproval; both survey providing  numbers historically  associated with a bad showing for his party in November.
    Third, whatever chance the Republicans have in Minnesota they have to be considered in light of the prospects of their party capturing the US Senate or other governorships across the country.  There are other states where the GOP have better chances of picking up Democrat Senate seats, such as in Montana and South Dakota, and the Republicans have to defend more gubernatorial seats than their main rivals.  Unless the numbers change in Minnesota quickly, look to see more time, effort, and money spent by outside groups on other races besides those to unseat Dayton and Franken.

 Political Messaging and Narratives
    Besides the numbers, campaigns and elections are won and lost based on political messages or narratives.  This year the narratives will be simple–do you like Obama, Obamacare, and the direction of the country, and do you like what the DFL did under unified control the last two years?
    For good or bad, the DFL party in Minnesota delivered on their promises because they were in charge.  This is the result of unified government.  When all is told the Democrats largely did what they promise, for good or bad.  They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more.  The DFL acted like, well, Democrats are expected to act and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process.  They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year.  They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, and they did a lousy job on infrastructure funding.  But come November they will tell the voters that they did what the aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single party control.
     But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them.  All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will triumph the Republicans will say is the reason why they should be elected.  They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that  the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes. They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNSURE and excess spending on a new Senate office building.  Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats–as tax and spend liberals–and that their party has a better or different vision on state government.  Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance.   The burden will be on the GOP to convince Minnesotans that they have a better narrative.  It may be easier to do with a 2014 electorate than a 2012 one, but still they need to make the case for why Dayton, Franken, and the DFL House should be ousted.

    Whatever and whoever the GOP nominate this weekend look to see an August primary.  The  Republicans will be spending the summer fighting one another instead of quickly uniting against  Dayton, Franken, and the Democrats.  The Minnesota Republicans, like the national party, is torn in many factions, potentially challenging the chances of them taking advantage of low voter turnout and disaffection with Obama.   The Republicans have a chance to flip Minnesota but in comparative  perspective, they face an uphill battle to win the governorship, the senate, and take back the House.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Potholes, Infrastructure, and Jim Oberstar

Among the notable shortcomings of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session was its bipartisan failure to tackle the serious infrastructure problems the state faces.
    “Infrastructure” is not a normally a sexy word. Nor is it the type of word that most of us use in everyday conversation, until a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. Yet infrastructure—a short hand way of referring to America’s bridges, roads, highways and sewer and water pipes—is important to our every day lives.  Without the basic infrastructure of roads we would never get to work, to school, or go shopping.  Without it we could not cross rivers, drink water, or flush our toilets.  For the most part we take our infrastructure for granted, until something goes seriously wrong, as it did in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007.  There, in the middle of rush hour a major bridge—one carrying over 100,000 cars per day—fell into the Mississippi River, killing and injuring scores of people. Suddenly infrastructure became the word of the day.
    You know there is an infrastructure problem in the state.  Think of all the potholes you drive over everyday–and they are getting worse.  But don’t rely just upon you own personal experiences, the problem is real.
    Historically Minnesota’s  quality of life was due in part to its infrastructure investment, but that too has lapsed over a generation.  The 2013 American Society for Civil Engineers’ report on infrastructure lists more than $10 billion is needed in this state over the next 20 years to upgrade the fresh and wastewater treatment facilities.  The state has nearly 1,200 structurally deficit bridges along with another 423 considered structurally obsolete.  The ASCE finds 52% of the highways are rated as poor or mediocre in quality.  This does not even  include all the new potholes this spring!  Schools have nearly $3.7 billion in needed capital repairs and our park system needs $375 million in investments.  All of this is just for repairs and maintenance and it does not include  new infrastructure needs, such as bringing high speed internet access to all of Minnesota.  Those who live in the Twin Cities forget that in many parts of the state dial-up is still the only option for the internet.
    But long before a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis infrastructure was a sexy word at least to one person–Jim Oberstar who served his entire congressional career on the US House Transportation Committee .  His passing should have been a wake up call to the need to invest more in infrastructure, and to also thank him for all that he did for Minnesota and the country.
    From the days when Adam Smith first wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776, infrastructure has been described as the skeleton that holds a country and its commerce together.  From the roads we drive on to the water we drink, a safe, secure, and reliable infrastructure is not only something we count on for convenience, but a must for national defense, commerce, industry, and entertainment.    America’s infrastructure did not just happen; it was built under the planning and leadership of the government and by enlightened political and civic leaders.  From the days of Alexander Hamilton as America’s first Secretary of Treasury, the national and state governments invested heavily in infrastructure to encourage American economic growth.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the spectacular growth of the country was made possible by a partnership between the government and private sector, with the former making investments in infrastructure that made business development possible.  The WPA and New Deal investments in parks and the highways under FDR and bridges under Eisenhower, as well as the creation of the water systems and other parts of the infrastructure under other presidents and leaders, constitutes the greatest gift that our parents and grandparents left to  America.
    But we squandered that gift. While engineers will look to the structural reasons for the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the real causes of its demise lie in the massive political failure in Minnesota and across the nation to reinvest in our infrastructure.  The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) does a periodic report on the state of American infrastructure.  For the last generation the results have not been pretty.  In its 2013 report the ASCE notes a needed investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to repair the decaying public infrastructure in America.  This compares to the $2.2 trillion price tag the ASCE estimated in 2009  that needed to be done by 2014. With estimates in the trillions of dollars, America’s aging roads, highways, bridges, and water systems are crumbling, airport runways are overcrowded, and mines are caving in on individuals. This is not new or something that just happened. 
    For at least twenty if not more years policy experts have documented the decaying infrastructure and our failure to reinvest in it.  Instead, we continue to live off the investments of previous eras, enjoying parks built by the New Deal, bridges and highways from the Cold War and Great Society, and other investments made by smart political leaders in the past who were willing to invest in the future documenting the cost and scope of the problem.  The anti-government, anti-tax politics that emerged in the 1970s and which blossomed during the Reagan era ushered in a policy of living off of yesterday and ignoring tomorrow, all in the interest greed and saving taxes.
    But while a nation was neglecting its infrastructure, public officials such as Jim Oberstar and to a lesser but still important extent Martin Sabo were in Congress fighting to get more money spent  on infrastructure and across the county.  Oberstar’s most famous accomplishments are the 2005 SAFETEA-LU act, a $295 billion program that funds transportation infrastructure, and the 2007 $250 million funding to replace the Minneapolis bridge.  Governor Pawlenty should thank Oberstar for the later for it might have saved his governorship.  But Oberstar’s accomplishments go beyond these two bills.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is not a piece of asphalt in the state of Minnesota that does not have his name on it, and nationally he is probably responsible for hundreds of billions if not more than a trillion dollars in transportation infrastructure funding over the last quarter century.
    To some, their efforts to get more money for bridges and highways reeked of pork barrel politics.  Many think of bridges to nowhere, earmarks, and old style politics when it comes to infrastructure spending.  But while it is pork to some, to others it is bringing home the bacon and it is all about jobs and economic development.  It is also about quality of life.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Making Sense of the 2014 Minnesota Legislative Session–A Tale in Four Parts

Legislative sessions in Minnesota produce defining themes.  These narratives allow observers to make sense out the political debates and the policies that emerge. Often times these narratives also influence the legislators themselves, acting almost as invisible hands that move participants in ways that look as if they are serving broader goals.  The 2014 legislative session too had its defining themes; in this case four stand out.

The DFL Delivered the Goods
    For good or bad, the DFL delivered on their promises because they were in charge.  This is the result of unified government.  When all is told the Democrats largely did what they promised.  They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more.  The DFL acted like, well, Democrats are expected to act and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process.  They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year.  They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, but outside Representative Winker and Senator Marty DFLers seem to have little appetite  for government ethics issues.  But come November they will tell the voters that they did what the aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single party control.
    But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them.  All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will triumph the Republicans will say is the reason why they should be elected.  They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that  the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes. They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNSURE and excess spending on a new Senate office building.  Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats–as tax and spend liberals–and that their party has a better or different vision on state government.  Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance. 

Dayton is in Charge
    What became clear here is the extent to which Dayton is in charge–not only as governor but also in terms of the legislative session.  His agenda largely defined what happened.  He wanted tax cuts and got them despite the desire of Tom Baak to save more of the surplus.  Dayton wanted a larger bonding bill, he got it.  Dayton was originally opposed to medical marijuana and the bill was dead until late in the session when he changed his mind and the policy got a second wind.  Dayton also used the bully pulpit effectively to structure what would go into many of the other laws that were passed–sprinklers for high end homes–and he generally imposed line of the legislature to act and the generally followed.  The governor in his first two years often took a passive roll in the legislative process.  Think about the law legalizing same-sex marriage.   For much of that debate he simply said that if the legislature passes the law he would sign it.  Dayton took that position on many bills.  But this session he went from being a passive participant to an active force in the legislature.

Suburban Soccer Moms Win (sort of)
    Suburbs are the battle ground for political power and control in Minnesota and the votes that drive who wins there are the soccer moms.  The suburban soccer mom is the single most important  swing voter in the state, and whoever wins or controls their vote wins statewide office and control of the legislature.
    Women in general, but especially the soccer mom, are central to Democrat and DFL success. Nationally there is a huge gender gap, with women far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.  Suburban women have left the Republican party for many reasons–reproductive rights, health care, and other family security issues, even while their male counterparts stay with the GOP.  Women are a larger percentage of the electorate than men and inn presidential election years they show up to vote.  But in now presidential years, they do not.  In part that is why Democrats do so badly in midterm elections.  This was the case in 2010 when Democrats nationally and in Minnesota were routed, but Dayton managed to capture enough female voters to win.  Come November 2014  what women will do–vote or stay home–will determine the fate of the Democrats.
    It should not come as a surprise then that in 2014 the DFL did what it could to reach out to female voters, giving them a reason to vote Democrat.  For the most part, women did well this session and one could say that the soccer mom in Edina with three kids was the winner.  Consider  four pieces of legislation.
    First, the passage of the anti-bulling legislation addressed an issue of core concern to mothers–their children being bullied.  No parent wants their children bullied, but this is an issue that resonates with moms more than dads.  Second, the Women’s Economic Security Act was a high profile bill aimed to eliminate employment and economic barriers facing women such as child care, discrimination, and sexual harassment issues.  Third, legalization of  medical marijuana was entirely an issue driven by women.  The so called “mommy lobby” was instrumental in overcoming the Governor’s reluctance in opposing the law enforcement community (one of his biggest supporters).  In fact, not until after Dayton was confronted with women telling stories about how their children needed medical marijuana did he move.  The mommy lobby gave the DFL cover on this issue.  The one surprise?  The DFL did not pass the Toxic Chemicals bill, a law that would have given parents more information about children's products to disclose presence of chemicals of concern in them.  This should have been a no-brainer, but it failed, perhaps due the lobbying presence of Minnesota’s  powerful food industry.  But on balance, suburban women did well by the DFL.

Evidence-Based Policy
    Ronald Reagan once said facts were stubborn things.  Facts can empower but often times facts have little impact on decisions, or at least certain kinds of facts.  Many of us hope that legislators will make policy based on evidence, but as I have written in American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research, there are many reasons why this is often not the case.  Alternatively, what lawmakers consider as facts is different from what social scientists or scientists consider as facts.  Consider again the medical marijuana bill.
    The medical profession is absolutely correct–there is no evidence substantiating the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana.  The type of evidence they are looking for is the classic controlled experiment, perhaps a double-blind test involving placebos.  But this type of evidence is seldom what moves policy makers.  For them, personal stories from constituents, often anecdotal, is seen as compelling and powerful.   Moms testifying before the legislature with children in hand, telling personal stories about how medical marijuana helped their children, is hard to resist.  These political facts are more likely to move  public officials than the kind that sway doctors and scientists and they were enough to move the governor and legislature this term on a host of issues that might otherwise lack real evidentiary support.   It is these kind of political facts that also move voters.
    Thus when it comes time to spin the story of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session the above four narratives define what happened.  How compelling these stories are, what they mean, and how the parties will frame them, will determine to a large extent who wins the 2014 elections.