Saturday, September 26, 2015

Boehner and Dayton: A Tale of Two Politicians and Parties

In addition to the Pope’s visit, two end-of-week stories made headlines.  One was the resignation of Speaker Boehner, the other the miserable roll out of the medical marijuana program in Minnesota.  Both stories deserve comment because they illuminate broader problems for the Republicans at the national level and the DFL in Minnesota.

“The Crazies Have Taken Over The Party.”
Speaker Boehner’s resignation really should have shocked no one.  His entire tenure as speaker has been tense.  Made speaker when the Tea Party arose and which  lead to the Republicans capturing majority control of the US House during the 2010 elections, Boehner has always been pulled in several directions.  One is being leader of the House of Representatives, seeking to broker deals with the Senate and President Obama.  This is the pragmatic and institutional aspect of his role as speaker.  But many in the GOP (as was true with Nancy Pelosi when she led the Democrats and the House as Speaker) view the speaker as both their party and ideological leader, expecting that person to push their agenda.
While all speakers face this pull as institutional, party, and ideological leaders, some are better able than others to bridge the three.  Boehner did his best, but seldom pleased his most conservative members.  On several occasions he negotiated deals to keep the government open or avert a debt crisis, but he also failed on occasion too.  For the ideological purists in his party, he too failed.  He failed on abortion, failed to cut taxes enough, failed to challenge Obama and the Democrats enough.  There were constant rumors and signs of ideological battles and tests of his leadership, but finally it became too much.  Boehner said that he was stepping down to protect the House and not let the constant leadership battles threaten the institution.
The issue that finally seemed to do it is the one now linking the defunding of Planned Parenthood to funding to keep the government open.  The purists are willing to shut the government down to defund PP and expected Boehner to be both their ideological and party leader to help them here.  But Boehner as part leader knew that past government shutdowns have hurt the Republicans in the past and would probably again do so this year, risking electoral problems in 2016.  Finally, as an institutionalist he knew shutting the government down was not good.  Thus, his tri-lemma–represent the ideologists who have taken control of the party, protect the GOP from self-destruction in the house, and protect the House and the government as an institution.
In the end, the ideologies have won.  They have won not simply in knocking off Boehner (a person they did not ever really trust), but they have taken control of the institution and of the party.  Peter King, Republican from NY, describes what just happened as “the crazies have taken over the party.”   Mainstream media says this move makes it less likely that there will be a government shutdown soon.  Maybe.  Or maybe a weakened Boehner or future speaker will be able to control the ideologies even less, perhaps increasing the chances of a shutdown or more confrontations as we getting closer to the 2016 elections.  Stay tuned.
But there is also something else the mainstream media is missing.  One has to view the resignation of Boehner in conjunction with the Republican presidential polls showing that the three outsides–Trump, Carson, and Fiorina–are leading over the institutionalists or more mainstream GOP.  Consider also polls showing a Republican base entrenched on issues over hostility to immigration  reform, proposals to address climate change, abortion, taxes, and just about everything else, and it  is easy to see why Trump, Carson, and Fiorina are leading.  It is looking to be the year that the Tea Party revolution started in 2009 has finally won.  The Republican party has been made over–if not by Tea Party followers, definitely by the ideologists.    The Party is being pulled ideologically further and further to the right at the congressional and presidential level, representing a demographics and ideology perhaps far from the ideological center of American politics.  Whether this means in the short or long term their demise is a matter of debate.  How Democrats respond will be interesting to see.

Dayton’s Dilemma
The roll out of medical marijuana is effectively a disaster on all fronts.  Yes the legislation was terrible and misconceived from the start.  Instead of just legalizing marijuana or allowing for a deregulated medical use, Minnesota chose to over-regulate its medical use.  Few people would be allowed to use to, but only in an expensive processed form that would not be covered by insurance.  Doctors would be expected to write prescriptions for its use even though they had no financial incentive to do so and risked their medical license to do so because marijuana is still illegal federally and doctors could potentially be sued or prosecuted for suggesting its use.  There was a costly process to select vendors to sell medical marijuana and they would have start up and operating costs  that far exceeded our friendly neighborhood dope dealer.  Bad policy design leads to bad implementation and that is what we are finding out now.
In the last week stories have emerged that the rollout of the medical marijuana is going poorly.  The prices are too high, too few people qualify, stories to buy the product are few, and the vendors are losing money.  There is talk now of qualifying more people for medical marijuana, perhaps giving the program financial solvency.  This will ultimately fail.  The basic policy design  is flawed and tinkering around the edges probably will not fix it.  In too many ways the policy was  captured by too many special interests who all wanted a piece of the pie, and by flawed assumptions about who wanted medical marijuana and why.
On one level one cannot fully blame the Dayton administration for the faulty policy design.  Dayton originally did not want medical marijuana.  But there is a troubling pattern here.   Consider perhaps the three most significant initiatives of the Dayton administration–the Vikings Stadium, MNSure, and now medical marijuana.  All three have had major policy design failures and all three have had terrible roll outs.  With the Vikings stadium MN has one of the worst stadium deals in the country.  MNSure’s rollout was so bad even Dayton was willing to put on the table this last session killing the Minnesota health care exchange and opting into the federal one.  Now medical marijuana and the concession it needs a major fix.  This is not a good implementation history for Dayton and the Democrats, and it is a certainty that such a pattern will be an issue in the 2016 state legislative elections.

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