Monday, May 9, 2011

A Rock and a Hard Place: Why the Republican Party of Minnesota is a Victim of its Own Rhetoric

If ever a party were trapped by its political rhetoric it is the Republican Party of Minnesota (RPM). With two weeks to go before the end of the regular legislative session it is more than ever clear that there will be no budget deal by then, forcing a special session and perhaps running a risk of a partial government shutdown on July 1.

Right now it does not look like there is a common ground or room for compromise–mostly because of the GOP–and the Republicans stand to be the biggest loser if there is a shutdown, so long as the DFL can play it right. Fortunately for the RPM, the DFL is probably unable to set the political hook.

An Easy Prediction
In January as the legislative session began I argued that the issue was not whether there would be a special session but whether a deal was possible before July 1. Given that more often than not in the last 15 years the Minnesota Legislature and the governor have been unable to arrive at a budget during regular session, predicting a special session was easy. Moreover, given the respective views of the governor to spend $37 billion and balance the budget and address the $5 billion deficit with cuts and tax increases, versus the RPM desire to spend $34 billion and balance with cuts alone, finding room for compromise by May 24, seemed unlikely.

Hardening Positions
Since January the positions of Dayton and the Republican legislature have hardened even more, with them turning more firm in the last few weeks.

First, Tony Sutton, RPM Party Chair, sent a letter to the Republican legislators urging them to remain firm on no tax increases. Second, Geoff Michel has stated that the Republicans have already compromised enough in agreeing to spend $34 billion or $3 billion more than they wanted. (Yet he did not indicate how with that compromise the Republicans planned to pay for that extra spending). Third, last week the Republicans rejected racino, sending a signal that they are opposed to any revenue increases. Fourth, the Republican budget bills have delivered on their promise–significant cuts to cities, education, and the poor while not authorizing tax or revenue increases.) Whether the numbers add up here to balance the budget is another question.)

Conversely, Dayton has made it clear that he does not support these cuts. He also stated last week he would prefer a special session rather than sign these bills.

The lines have been drawn in the sand. There seems to be no room or avenue for compromise. Both sides are playing chicken, waiting for the other side to blink or give in. As of now, there seems to be no middle ground for compromise, rendering deadlock and partial shutdown a possibility.

Who is to blame?: The Republicans
Who is to blame for the impasse? It would be easy to blame both sides, but this is one time where the Republicans bare the majority of the responsibility.

For the Republicans, compromise on taxes and revenues is tantamount to surrender. Opposition to tax increases has become an article of faith for Republicans in power. They and the base of their party appear to view taxes as a line in the sand over which they do not compromise. To agree to increase taxes is a sell out and will cost you dearly with the base and in the party.

Literally, it is impossible given the special interests and entities that make up the RPM for them to give on taxes. Tony Sutton’s letter to the Republican Legislators makes that clear, and the recent hiring of Craig Westover for the RPM Party reinforces the sense that this is not the party of Arnie Carlson and David Durenburger. It is not a party about responsible pragmatic governance, but about an ideological opposition to taxes, whatever the cost to the public.

The Republican Rock and Hard Place
So here is the problem for the Republicans–they look unreasonable but cannot compromise because of their base and they face potential voter wrath in 2012 if the budget crashes and there is a government shutdown.

Dayton has played it well. His message of tax increases and some budget cuts resonates with the public. Polls support this approach and the combination of cuts and taxes sounds reasonable to most. Moreover, when deficit moved from $6 to $5 billion Dayton eliminated his onetime user fee as a token of compromise. Dayton has made it sound like he is willing to give, including considering racino and the Tom Horner type proposal that would substitute sales taxes for income taxes.

The RPM is trapped by conflicting goals. Its base and ideology says no taxes increases yet to go through with the pledge risks massive and unpopular cuts to education and health programs. It also risks a government shutdown which is not going to be popular.

Yet the RPM wants to retain control of the legislature and remain the in the majority the day after the 2012 elections. To secure that goal it has to win over swing voters, the majority of whom do not support their message. In the 2010 governor’s race, 56% of the voters supported Dayton or Horner for governor, both candidates who favored the tax increases and some cuts approach to balance the budget. These two candidates also captured the vast majority of the swing voters in the state.

If there is a partial government shutdown or if the cuts are unpopular, the Republicans stand to lose the most in 2012 since the entire legislature is up for election and the majority party generally takes the brunt of the voters’ anger. This is what happened nationally in 2006, 2008, and 2010. In all three elections the mantra or political narrative of “change" was popular. Look to see the same in 2012.

The RPM has every incentive to compromise and maintain their majority status. Yet they cannot do that or else face the anger of the Tea Party voters and their conservative fiscal base which opposes compromise.

Thus the rock and the hard place–compromise to keep majority status and face the anger of the base, or appease the base and lose the swing voters and the majority status.

The 2012 Strategy

This is what DFLers are hoping for–a RPM meltdown. They are hoping the Republicans meltdown and with 2012 potentially a better year for Democrats than 2010, they get back their majority status. Yet this requires the DFL to set the political hook and message correctly on this. One cannot bet on this.

One also cannot bet the DFL will not blink in the budget negotiations. This is what the Republicans are banking on.

Finally, in anticipating a tough 2012 year, the GOP is resorting to the placement of constitutional amendments on the ballot to reprise 2004 and motivate their base and offset a DFL year. Yet 2012 is not 2004. The ban on same-sex marriage may backfire and inspire progressives and the young to vote, and pushing social issues, while important to the base, may not be popular with the general public, thereby again alienating the swing voter.

The Republican Party of Minnesota is trapped by its own special interests and rhetoric, rendering 2011 compromise a dirty word and 2012 a possible loss of majority status.


  1. Indeed there will be a great deal of misery in the next two years due to what the national (GOP) party does in Congress and to what the state party does here in MN. People are going to hate the results, and I think the pendulum will swing the other way so long as progressives are able to clearly explain who is responsible. I also agree that we should not underestimate the ability of DFL to screw this up.

  2. I must say I'm mystified as to why intelligent people think a government shutdown hurts the GOP. Fritz Knaack had it exactly right last night, the party of the public employees unions is the party that is hurt by a shutdown. And that certainly isn't the GOP. A shutdown that lasts any length of time will have some of Dayton's core constituencies feeling the pain. The party of the taxpayer, not so much.