The 2008 Legislative session begins Feb. 12. If Carol Molnau is still Minnesota's commissioner of transportation on Feb. 13, it won't be because she has learned how to lead a critical state agency or how to advocate on behalf of the public for real support from her boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

It will be because Democrats lost their nerve. And forgot why they ran for election.

Reports from the Capitol last week suggested that weak-kneed Democrats may be losing their resolve to fire Molnau and are scheming that they might benefit more, politically, by letting her stay at transportation -- despite the incompetence, cost overruns, poor planning and avoidable tragedies that have taken place.

How many people have to die before this state gets mad?

Molnau does double duty as Republican Pawlenty's elected lieutenant governor and as his appointed transportation commissioner. Since Aug. 1 of last year, when the Interstate 35W bridge fell, she also has been an albatross around Pawlenty's neck. Some Democrats think it would be more to their advantage to keep her hanging there, rather than to serve as stewards of the state.

This is the kind of junk that gives politics a bad name. As I said after the bridge collapse, good politics builds bridges and hospitals and schools. Bad politics can let them fall down. Everything is political, because politics is about what kind of life we want, and how we want to govern ourselves. The part of the process that makes people cynical is when the big considerations are trumped by small-minded jockeying for advantage and gamesmanship.

The DFLers are playing that game with Molnau. And the governor is playing it, too.

He stood behind Molnau at first, but is so far behind her now that he has vanished from sight. The reality is that he has washed his hands of his lieutenant's fate -- leaving it to her, she says, to decide whether to stay on as head of a $2 billion a year department that has come apart during her tenure.

Pawlenty should have moved her out of MnDOT months ago, but that would be to admit that her appointment was not a triumph for tax-free highways. Molnau's support has fallen to the point where she has to claim she meets people at gas stations who wish her well. Ouch. So Pawlenty has left her out on a plank, hoping she will be pushed by the Senate.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Sen. Steve Murphy, the Red Wing DFLer who has called for Molnau's resignation, says there is only a slim chance that senators -- DFL and Republican -- won't give her the heave-ho. But he admits some DFLers are arguing it might be a smarter chess move to let her stay. Forget about chess moves.

This is not a game.

Molnau has been commissioner without confirmation since early last year when DFLers let her continue in the job without a vote. That side-step was taken because the DFL says it hoped to work with Republicans and Pawlenty-Molnau in passing transportation funding. The bills passed but Pawlenty vetoed them, anyway. Molnau stood by, beaming, as her department's funding died.

Nothing about her job performance is likely to change if she stays. Carol Molnau has shown in every way possible, short of being caught spray-painting graffiti on the crumbling side of the MnDOT building, that she is unfit for the job. To remove her will not make Pawlenty a better governor or suddenly improve the performance of MnDOT. But it will make a clear statement about what is, and what isn't, acceptable in the state formerly known as the State that Works.

"This situation has gotten beyond politics," says Sen. Scott Dibble, a Senate Transportation Committee member and DFLer from Minneapolis. "The most 'political' thing we could do would be to fail to act. The Senate's responsibility is to exercise due diligence, and to make the best decision we can on behalf of the state."

Dumping Molnau is not partisan politics. It is about the kind of state you want. I don't care if any senator gets elected again. But I sure won't vote for anyone who doesn't try to confine Molnau to the lieutenant governor's office, where she can plan ribbon cuttings.

The Senate should get her hand off the transportation throttle. On Day One.

Nick Coleman