Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bachmann,Pawlenty, and the Government Shutdown: As Minnesota Goes, so Goes the Nation

The parallels between the politics of the Minnesota governmental shutdown and the impasse at the federal level to extend the debt ceiling are compelling. But to understand both, one especially needs to look at the transformation of the Minnesota Republican Party, a party once representing a more moderate stance which is being increasingly remade in the image of Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party. This change offers lessons about the prospects of a deal on the debt ceiling, the rival presidential campaigns of Minnesotans Michelle Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, and the nature of American politics and the Republican Party in general.

On the surface the dispute in Minnesota between the Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and the Republican legislature had been over the state budget. Dayton wanted to spend $37 billion and erase the $5 billion deficit with some cuts that do not hurt the poor or education, and with tax increases on the wealthy. The GOP wanted to spend $34 billion and erase the deficit with cuts alone that seem to burden the poor, elderly, education, and local governments. But the budget is a proxy for a deeper disagreement over rival views of the government versus the market. The Republicans see government and taxes as bad, intruding upon the wisdom and functioning of markets. Let markets act and they will generate jobs prosperity, and solve the basic problems of society.

For Dayton, while market solutions and the private sector are the preferred places to produce jobs and make decisions, they recognize markets fail. Markets fail to address needs of equity. They produce inequities in wealth and income distribution, they fail to address core problems of education funding and disparities, they fail to address problems in infrastructure investment.

Yet the Republicans are not consistently anti-government. Many still find it necessary to hire police and enforce basic laws, and apparently to enact laws to prevent same-sex couples from marrying, ban stem-cell research, and outlaw abortion. The real difference between the Republicans and Dayton is over how much government and who it should favor. It is a debate of government versus the market, individual versus society, and secularism versus religion. These debates in Minnesota parallel what is happening at the national level in Congress and with the Republicans and President Obama. The fight over the debt ceiling is merely a proxy for a deeper divide over government.

The debate over 'why government' is ideological. Yet arising simultaneously are other phenomena aggravating the debate over 'why government'–the triumph of ideology over pragmatism and party polarization. Minnesota microcosms the nation. The ideological divide, especially for the Republicans, means all or nothing. By that, if one side is right the other must be wrong and therefore no compromise is possible. As Kurt Zellers, Minnesota's Republican speaker of the house, stated: “Whether it's a half a tax increase, a whole tax increase, or a quarter tax increase ... it's a bad idea.” Thus the equivocation of compromise to capitulation.

But demographics reinforce partisanship. Minnesota is more than a red and blue state–it is polka dotted. The partisan distribution of the state has a clear geographic pattern. The Democrats solidly have the Twin Cities and some of the other urban cores, the Republicans have the rest. The geographic partisanship is hard to correct with redistricting given residential patterns. This means the electoral forces that should drive elected officials to compromise do not exist. Instead, fully partisan areas simply reinforce the current ideological divide. In Minnesota there are only a handful of legislative seats that can really swing, the rest are solidly partisan. This creates little incentive to compromise. The same pattern exists in Congress, with less than a quarter of the seats really swing.

But political parties nationally and in Minnesota are more polarized than a generation or so ago. There is more ideological cohesion in the parties, especially for the Republicans. At one point the Minnesota Republican Party was moderate, selecting individuals such as former governor Arne Carlson and U.S. Senator David Durenburger. They represented a party still connected to the old Rockefeller wing. Neither are now welcome in their old party. They have been eclipsed by two new versions of the Republican Party. Version one, the Reagan remake, produced Tim Pawlenty and it was clearly more skeptical toward taxes and government, yet not uncompromisingly hostile. Arne Carlson raised taxes when needed and Pawlenty did it via user fees.

Yet Minnesota now has a new version of the Republican Party replacing the Reagan brand. Its roots go back to Barry Goldwater and it expresses frustration with the Reaganites who it viewed as too willing to compromise with Democrats. Reaganism lost nerve and principle, and it needed to complete what he started but did not finish. It is a party centrally guided by religious fundamentalism, constitutional originalism, and political purism. This is Tea Party Republicanism–the party of Michelle Bachmann in Minnesota and Sarah Palin nationally.

Pawlenty’s presidential bid is a casualty of this new Republicanism. He is either too moderate for it or he is forced to drive further to the right, aping messages his rival Bachmann already resonates. He is a dinosaur or Johnny-come-lately, a candidate without a clear narrative or constituency. But the other casualty is Minnesota state politics. The inability of Tea Party Republicans to compromise drove Minnesota into a shutdown, and it continues to dog its resolution even after Dayton gave into many of its demands. The Minnesota shutdown is the moment of opportunity for the Republicans–use the leverage to get it all. This too seems to be the mantra for the Republicans at the national level when it comes to the debt ceiling.

The lessons one learns from Minnesota is that the remaking of the Republican Party, reinforced by demographics, has produced a showdown with disastrous effects. This is the same phenomena operating at the national level regarding the debt ceiling. The results from Minnesota offer pessimistic predictions for the country.

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