Blaming and gaming the blame game


For obvious reasons and in roughly 100 percent of cases, the party that truly doesn’t want something politicized is the party that expects to lose politically by said politicization.

Nick Coleman’s second column on the topic was correct. The bridge collapse will be politicized. Democrats will cite it (already have) as evidence of what happens when your answer to every question is “no new taxes,” and that will certainly be a political assertion.

Opinion: Blaming and gaming the blame game

As my esteemed former colleague put it:

“If you think everyone should play nice about it, you are living in Pollyanna Land. We are in a bare-knuckled political brawl in this country, and the government is in the hands of government haters who want to starve it…”

Republicans will accuse (already have) Democrats of trying to capitalize on a tragedy, and that will also be a political assertion. For obvious reasons and in roughly 100 percent of cases, the party that truly doesn’t want something politicized is the party that expects to lose politically by said politicization.

The bridge was known to be structurally deficient. The Pawlenty-Molnau administration has been in office for four and a half years. Fair or unfair, they will wear this tragedy as a blot on their collective escutcheon.

But is it fair? Can we be grownups about it, acknowledge that political points will be scored, but also be serious citizens about — and try to rise above — the scorekeeping and learn the right lessons?

Fairness requires acknowledging that although Pawlenty vetoed two gas tax bills that would have provided funds for roads and bridges, he also proposed to increase transportation spending with borrowed money. Fairness requires noting that, although MnDOT turned down a proposal to attach steel plates to shore up the 35W bridge, even if the proposal had been accepted, the work would not have been done in time to prevent the tragedy. But toughness requires that we note that the option MnDOT chose — more frequent inspections — didn’t do the job. And the fact that the state was worried that drilling the holes necessary to attach the steel plates might have further weakened the already cracking bridge certainly establishes how clearly MnDOT understood that it was leaving a very troubled bridge over the waters.

We still don’t know why the bridge fell (and according to the latest reports, we may not get the final report on that for a year and a half), so we can’t really know if it was caused by some particular act of misfeasance or nonfeasance (and if so, by whom).

So my fairness meter says that those who cross the line into asserting that the governor and his lieutenant governor/transportation commissioner bear direct responsibility for the deaths and injuries of last week have lost contact with what the evidence has shown.

Brian Lambert of the Rake was also right that citizens and journalists have every right and every reason to be very aggressive about demanding to know everything about what was and wasn’t done to prevent the tragedy. But was he fair in concluding that the tragedy was “avoidable” and was a clear consequence of Pawlenty’s taxing and spending policies?

I asked that question of Elwyn Tinklenberg, who was Jesse Ventura’s transportation commissioner (so he knows how this stuff actually works and doesn’t) and whom I view as fair-minded (although a Democrat).

He said the issue has to go beyond the question of the blameworthiness of a particular transportation commissioner and governor. He felt that the eight years of the Arne Carlson administration before Ventura came to office had been years of infrastructure neglect. He knew when he was commissioner that roads and bridges needed increasingly urgent attention, but he couldn’t get the level of funding necessary to really tackle the job. So he said he “feels some sympathy” with Pawlenty and Molnau, standing there holding the bag when the nightmare became horrible reality.

But Tinklenberg also noted that Pawlenty and Molnau held legislative leadership positions long before they changed to the executive branch. Their basic approach of no-new-taxes small-government, both in St. Paul and among their allies in Washington, was a key reason that the infrastructure continued to deteriorate.

Molnau, who is sticking by her taxes-are-never-the-answer guns even as Pawlenty is clearly indicating that he now favors a gas tax hike, said that to accomplish the kind of road and bridge Pawlenty favors would require at least a 34-cents-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax. This was a plain effort to signal the anti-taxes crowd that she hasn’t changed and that she still hopes the public might be alarmed at how much it will cost to have safe roads and bridges.

Maybe so, Tinklenberg said of the 34-cent figure, but “that’s because of all the small, affordable steps that we haven’t taken along the way, which is why we are looking at such a deep hole right now.”

So, Tinklenberg said, the media and the voting public should seize this as a moment to ask whether starving the government is an ideology with which they want to continue.