OPINION | Cleaning Pawlenty’s mess


Strong leadership requires strong, clear messaging; doing the right thing begins with direct, unambiguous communication. Following eight years of the Pawlenty administration’s unraveling of Minnesota’s physical, social and educational infrastructure, Governor-elect Dayton has room to run. He also has room to stumble.

Dayton, judging by his comments after meeting with departing Commissioner of Administration Cal Ludeman, is off to a good start. He’s displeased with the Pawlenty Administration’s indifferent commitment to affordable healthcare. He’s unhappy that the Pawlenty-delayed federal Medicaid expansion implementation won’t be fully effective until October.

But the best part? He walked out and spoke his mind, clearly and unequivocally. That’s a great start.

Looking forward, the national Obama administration’s experience offers the Dayton administration guidance. Obama’s first two years provides insight into what not to do. Rather than assume every challenge’s burden, Governor-elect Dayton will be well-served to regularly remind Minnesotans that his predecessor spend eight years creating the present mess. Dayton was elected, he can assert, to put Minnesota on even footing, a difficult task given Pawlenty’s damage.

Interpreting the Pawlenty era will require a regular, on-going narrative. In other words, Dayton needs to understand the story that he’s telling and provide sufficient compelling detail. “It was a dark and stormy night,” engages the reader in a very different fashion than does, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Two centuries later, contemporary readers make fun of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ponderous prose while Jane Austen is adored because Austen created a more compelling, engaging narrative.

Now, to be fair, Bulwer-Lytton enjoyed great success in his day. His books sold well, he was widely read, and was a celebrity by Victorian-era standards. Austen, in contrast, was unknown beyond her immediate circle of friends and family. Her books didn’t sell well and she earned just enough to support herself. Austen’s narrative voice resonates with modern audiences while Bulwer-Lytton’s work appears florid, fussy and dated.

My point is not to be one more voice extolling Austen and deriding Bulwer-Lytton but to underscore the importance of creating and sustaining a compelling story. Austen’s detail underscores her story’s emotional engagement where Bulwer-Lytton’s does not.

Dayton must interpret the Pawlenty administration, revealing it as a dark, backwards-looking chapter in Minnesota history in order to build support for his progressive policy vision.

Every story needs a bad guy. Dayton can cast Pawlenty and his policy choices in that role or Dayton can, like Obama, allow himself to be transformed into villain.

Perhaps the public’s expectations of Obama were unrealistically buoyant. Given the crashing economy in late 2008 and two wars, any national leader would define success as surviving rather than succeeding. Yet, the Obama administration rushed to the podium with a “we’re in charge now” air. President Bush’s team arrived with similar hubris in 2001. Within a year and a half, the U.S. had twice invaded the Middle East and was borrowing every Chinese dollar available to pay for military excursions and domestic tax breaks.

Through it all, President Bush and his team reliably directed responsibility towards his predecessor, President Clinton. The Obama administration, on the other hand, boldly assumed that electoral popularity would carry the President’s agenda through Congress. In President Bush, they had a terrific bad guy but they let him off the hook.

Dayton mustn’t make the same mistake.

Governor Pawlenty’s conservative “no new taxes” policy initiatives weren’t simply fruitless; they caused Minnesota to slip back. Minnesota’s schools are falling behind. Minnesota’s affordable healthcare programs are disappearing, leaving more Minnesotans uninsured. Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling. And, Minnesota’s economy is losing more jobs than it creates.

Most Minnesotans don’t understand the depth and complexity of these problems. Dayton will need a new, focused set of policies, geared towards building strong schools, expanding affordable healthcare, creating robust infrastructure and growing Minnesota’s economy. He’ll also need a story making the case for change while assigning the decline’s responsibility to the Pawlenty policies.

As Governor Pawlenty leaves office, he’s doing everything possible to assert a heroic interpretation of his conservative policy agenda. He claims that he inherited a budget deficit but left a balance, conveniently ignoring a projected $7 billion budget deficit in the upcoming biennium. He claims a commitment to schools, community stability, public safety, economic development, fiscal discipline and infrastructure maintenance that is factually unsustainable. He has not yielded from his insistence that his policies are triumphant.

That’s good storytelling, making the narrative serve the ending. The best storytelling however is the one that correctly tells Minnesotans about the challenges we face, who caused them, and makes the case for moving forward. Do that and you have a best-seller on your hands.