Base Instincts


In 1978, Minnesota foreshadowed the coming Reagan Revolution — that two-plus decade of political reaction at home and unilateral military adventurism abroad — with the election of old-time conservative Al Quie as Governor and right-of-center Rudy Boschwitz to U.S. Senate.

Twenty-years later, it seemed that Minnesota might again be foreshadowing the next great realignment of American politics with Jesse Ventura’s upset victory in the 1998 gubernatorial race. For awhile, some political observers wondered whether third-party insurgencies — which got off with a bang with Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential Bid — might not end up dismantling the hidebound two-party system. At a minimum, it seemed possible that one of the two main parties might go the way of the Whig Party in the 19th century, eclipsed by some 21st century version of the new Republican Party of the 1850s.

None of this, of course, came to pass; in retrospect, though Ralph Nader did mount a spirited challenge in 2000, it’s easy to see that the forces that contributed to Perot’s success in 1992, most notably a deep recession, were no longer operative during the speculative boom of the late 90s. By then a large percentage of us, sleepily unaware of the aims of some ragtag bunch of fanatics calling themselves Al-Qaeda, had deluded ourselves into thinking that we were gonna ride our Enron/WorldCom/Tyco-heavy stock portfolios right to the top of Big Rock Candy Mountain. Hard as it is to recall from the vantage point of 2007, in 2000 it didn’t seem to make a dime’s worth of difference (to quote an earlier third-party insurgent) whether George W Bush or Al Gore were elected President.

But even as Minnesota has at moments seemed to be a political bellweather rather than backwater, the state has, alas, not proven entirely immune to pernicious developments on the national scene. For a time during the Ventura Administration, it seemed that we might take a pass on the bitter, scorched-earth partisanship that gripped Washington and was quickly infecting the states as well. For all his inability to exert consistent and effective leadership once in office, Ventura made a genuine effort to appoint the best and the brightest, regardless of party affiliation, to top administrative posts as well as to the state bench. And if nothing else, his victory in 1998 served to unite the DFL and Republican Party in a common goal of preventing him and the Independence Party from achieving a permanent foothold in the state. The motive wasn’t pretty, but at least it generated a few years of bi-partisanship!

Which brings us to today, on the verge of not one, but three threatened vetoes of DFL-back legislation in only one session: the higher education bill; the income tax bill; and now, a bill that has just passed the Senate and will be taken up (and likely approved on a straight party-line vote) by the House allowing the University of Minnesota to receive state money for stem cell research. In each case, one or both parties to these transactions — Gov. Pawlenty on one hand, DFL legislators on the other — is acting on that current bane of contemporary American politics: appealing to the base, regardless of the harm such narrow partisan behavior might cause society. The pending impasse is the dark triumph of politics according to Karl Rove, a man whose last name, incidentally, sounds like “rogue” spoken by someone with a mouth full of Jack Abramoff’s dirty lucre.

As I’ve said, neither party is blameless. While laudable in its objectives, the Dream Act — that portion of the higher ed bill that would extend in-state tuition and other benefits to illegal immigrants — seems more like a needless tossing down of the gauntlet (and an appeal to that portion of the DFL base for whom immigrant rights trump all) than an attempt to pass legislation. But again, the lion’s share of guilt lies with Pawlenty. There is nothing in the income tax bill, which would raise state taxes on a grand total of 92,000 of Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens, then use the added revenue to offer desperately needed property tax relief to middle class families scrambling to hold on to their homes, that makes it a worthy target for a veto. That is, nothing other than the Governor’s opportunistic “no new taxes” pledge made as part of his deal-with-the-devil to win the 2002 endorsement. Just how many families are going to have to go bankrupt before Mr. Pawlenty wrests his soul back from the clutches of the Minnesota Taxpayers League?

And as for the stem cell legislation, well, don’t get me started. The University of Minnesota is conducting some of the most innovative stem cell research in the world right now. While it is true, as Pawlenty says, nothing in current law prevents the University from conducting stem cell research, or seeking funding for same from private sources, all I can say is that Tim Pawlenty is not a stupid man, and he knows as well as I do that state funding acts as seed money and multiplier, attracting several dollars of private funding for every dollar of public money.

Even more important, it will add to the momentum across the country to override the life-negating “pro-life” anti-stem cell research position taken by the Bush Administration. As a member of a family with a history of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other less-common afflictions for which stem cell research holds out at least the possibility of a cure, this is one veto threat I take very personally. Here, appealing to the base is, quite, literally, trading the “sanctity” of embryos — almost all destined to be destroyed in the normal course of things — for the lives and well-being of “post-born” Minnesotans. Partisanship’s one thing, Tim. But now you’re talking about my kith and kin — and the kith and kin of a lot of other residents of this state — being offered up on the altar of your ambitions to serve as running mate for John McCain’s already-doomed 2008 Presidential campaign.

For once, sir, do the right thing — remind the base that you’re the Governor of all Minnesotans and sign at least the stem cell bill when it lands on your desk.