Convention contention


The Minnesota State DFL Convention is this weekend. It’s one important step on the road to what should be a highly contested and interesting election for governor this November.

It should be, that is. The USofA isn’t in the kind of mood that makes for good elections at the state level, and it certainly isn’t in the kind of mood that favors left-leaning candidates. That’s a real liability given that the last time a State DFL Convention endorsed a winning governor was in 1986, when Rudy Perpich was picked. But the real question isn’t the candidate, it’s what the DFL does to bring up its energy and focus for the next six months.

There is no more fascinating contrast to the mood that the US electorate is in than the contest going on right now in the UK. The ruling Labour Party is not having a good time of it largely because it seems tired and directionless. However, a quick glance from afar shows that their first ever “American Style” debate centered on domestic issues such as fixing the health care system, the kind of stuff that has actual American Style politics boiling over in a frenzy. What’s the difference?

While their atmosphere isn’t exactly the bed of roses that someone like Blair could fall right into, the UK is clearly in a mood that favors lefty politics. The most likely beneficiary will be Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, a young and articulate man who brings new energy but no tremendous change in policy. The USofA, by contrast, seems to be going through an “End of the Empire” throes that were made for someone like Margaret Thatcher. It’s a bad time to create a compelling debate on running a state and fixing the problems that are built into the system.

What can the DFL do to change the mood and get voters to focus on state issues? It’s not generally something you can do in six months. Yet there is still a lot of hope as the DFL contends for the open governor’s seat. Here’s my take on it.

I’ll start with the demonstrable fact that turnout has a lot to do with how the DFL wins. In another place, I showed how there is a Republican base of 900 to 1,100 thousand voters who are reliable. The DFL has to have a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) strategy at the center of its campaign to turn out more people than that, something it hasn’t been able to muster in more than 20 years.

That’s where the mood of the electorate and the election becomes so critical. People are going to have to become excited enough to identify themselves as willing DFLers and the machinery is going to have to identify them and get them to show up. You can’t do that with negative campaigning, or telling everyone how bad the other guys are — you have to make a positive case that fires people up. This is a marked contrast to the debate in the UK that clearly favors the left, one based on policy and detail. Yet at the same time, the DFL wins when it demonstrates that it is the party that is capable of running the government competently and fairly.

That’s a lot of fine distinctions to split in a short campaign season. No one honest or smart will tell you this will be easy.

Yet this can still be done by building the case carefully, strategically, and with a great deal of energy. You don’t have to look at Obama’s huge win too long to realize that “Yes, We Can!” is a lot more than a slogan, it’s the winning strategy. There’s little time or interest in the specifics and details, but the connection has to be made all the same.

What will win this for the DFL is if the focus moves to one of basic fairness and decency in government. As an example, the Minnesota Tax Incidence study shows that after we’ve paid all the various sales, property, income, and excise taxes the net effect on the state is that rates go down as you make more money. The poorest tenth of our state pays a net 22.1%, the middle 12.5%, and the richest tenth 10.1%. Does this seem fair? Ask the question, let the voters sort it out. Let those who are into it read the whole study for themselves because the truth is there in black and white. For the campaign, it’s a matter of fairness.

That won’t solve the budget mess we have, but turning the debate on matters of fairness opens up the vast middle ground for the DFL. The ideological purity demanded by the Republicans is a terrible liability for them because they are hardened in their trenches and cannot maneuver. They can easily be flanked and spanked into a loss that gets the population cheering.

The DFL will have a tendency to want an election that turns more or less like how the UK one is playing out for the simple reason that that’s the kind of election we know we can win.  Wishing that was how our debate went has cost us 20 years. We have to force the debate in that direction in an atmosphere that is much more poisonous than how we score an easy win. We haven’t been organized enough as a party to get to that point, and the electorate is frankly distracted by a very toxic national debate. That doesn’t mean we can’t find another way around the problem.

“Yes, We Can!” It’s about getting out the vote and getting the energy up, no matter who we are rallying behind. We might know how likely this is after the Convention this weekend.  Are you with me, DFL?