Star Tribune

Opinion

DFL snubs the middle as it swings by

The party could have avoided the GOP’s strategical errors — but didn’t.

Article by: MICHAEL T.P. SWEENEY , Star Tribune Chairman

Updated: May 17, 2013 - 6:05 AM

I blame the Republicans.

The implosion of the Minnesota GOP after many years of mismanagement and pseudo-macho internal hardball has deprived our great state of a two-party system. Not only does one party now control all the levers of power for the first time in a generation, but there is no longer so much as a respected, recognized voice from the loyal opposition. Since the days of Tony Sutton and Michael Brodkorb, and maybe as far back as the days of Bill Cooper, the Republicans have eaten their own RINOs, quislings and other traditional moderate conservatives. Experienced GOP leaders like Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman do not seem to want much to do with the local party — and it isn’t clear that the Tea Partiers, in their waning days, want much to do with them, either.

In their arrogance, the Republicans miscalculated and overreached in the last election cycle, introducing the divisive marriage and voter ID amendments at the behest of big money donors and against the advice of traditional allies in the business community. This startled progressives and gave them a rallying cry. The Republicans seemed radical and mean-spirited, and Democrats won seats in fiscally conservative but socially moderate suburbs like Edina, Minnetonka and Eagan.

The swing of those swing districts meant that the Democrats would hold all of the power, and the question became: What would they do with that power? We now know the answer.

One choice would have been to recognize that Minnesota is still a closely divided state. The 2012 election results meant that Minnesotans rejected GOP extremism, but not that they’d all become progressives. Democrats who understood this would have governed moderately — remaining true to their principles, to be sure, but taking incremental steps designed to reassure voters that the DFL has the maturity to be a long-term steward of state government.

The second option was to assume that total DFL control of state government is an anomaly that would not hold through the next election cycle, even if Democrats governed from the center. In this state of mind, Democrats would adopt the screed of union leader Eliot Seide — “This is our time!” — and enact militant proposals that normal, divided governments would later be unable to undo.

It is now clear, sadly, that the Democrats have chosen the go-for-broke approach. This session has seen an astounding set of aggressively progressive proposals. The aims involved seem reasonable enough and could be embraced by most Minnesotans. An increase in the minimum wage over time to national levels, a renewed investment in education, the rebalancing of our tax structure to a more sustainable structure with lower rates and a broader base (with protections for low-income citizens) — all these would have been noble goals with debate over the details of how to achieve them.

Unfortunately, the Democratic proposals on these fronts are radical and ideologically driven. An almost 50 percent hike in the minimum wage; the largest-ever increase in education spending, leading to the largest-ever tax increase, and the abandonment of a broad base and low rates for a tax strategy that looks like “soak the rich” threaten to create the same kind of backlash that the Republicans saw after their thoughtless overreach.

Perhaps the straw that breaks the swing district’s backs will be the push by the governor and DFL legislative leaders to unionize health and child-care workers. If this were seen as only a sop to the unions in return for loud, early and generous support for the governor’s campaign, it could be seen as the normal, if unfortunate, politics of the victor. But in this case, Dayton and the legislative leaders are pursuing aggressive unionization policies that most assuredly would raise the cost of government in Minnesota without getting increased value. This could well be conceived as dereliction of their duty to deliver government services in the most efficient manner possible.

Such policies reflect an ideological reflex more than a measured commitment to better lives for all Minnesotans. Undoubtedly there will be rejoicing among many traditional DFL constituencies that have long waited to seize the day. Those constituencies are pressuring Democratic legislators to fall in line, just as GOP money pressured legislators to fall in line with constitutional amendments that the rank and file did not embrace.

If these legislators choose party over policy, it is likely that the Star Tribune will soon be running a column that begins: “I blame the Democrats.”

It did not have to be this way.

* * *

Michael Sweeney is the Star Tribune's board chairman.

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