Our advice? Enjoy the show.

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Updated: September 5, 2010 - 9:41 AM

There's more than a bit of a circus atmosphere to this year's gubernatorial campaign. Question is: With such characters on either side, can Tom Horner be the ringmaster?

Criticize any one politician and you're likely to start an argument. Find fault with any one political party and its defenders will set you straight.

But denounce politics in all its forms, root and branch; express perfect disgust with the whole shabby spectacle of modern campaigns; declare that all parties are conspiracies against the public interest and that no politician lives who can be trusted around the good silverware -- and almost everybody will agree with you.

I fully endorse the view that all politicians are scoundrels (for the simple reason that all human beings have a scoundrelly side). But politics itself is a good thing, if a comically homely one, which makes the world safe for (and from) scoundrels.

In fact, remembering that elections are what we do instead of civil war, it may be suitable to paraphrase Robert E. Lee: It is well that politics is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.

We have ourselves a rollicking governor's race here in Minnesota, brimming over with outlandish characters and imponderable outcomes. Minnesotans should let themselves enjoy it as a circus sideshow, if only as compensation for having to endure it as a high-stakes choice they really have to make.

Begin by realizing that the candidates are nowhere near so ill-equipped or ill-intentioned as the crossfire of attack ads would have you believe. (Really, who could be?) But even if they were, America's founders bequeathed us a political system consciously designed to make the best of discouraging raw material.

"It would be impossible to prove," John Adams wrote, "that a republic cannot exist even among highwaymen, by setting one rogue to watch another; and the knaves themselves may in time be made honest men by the struggle."

That's the original, dry-eyed American spirit in which one can watch the Emmer-Dayton-Horner demolition derby with a smile.

The most intriguing question at the moment is whether we can really look forward to a three-candidate pileup. Can mild-mannered public relations man and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner break through and become a contender against former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, the Democrats' guilty-rich scourge of the filthy-rich, and against state Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican revolutionary laying siege to the tyranny of overtipped bus boys and pensioned bureaucrats to set our factory farmers free?

Remarkably, perhaps, the odds facing Horner are long. His opportunity is also his obstacle.

Dayton and Emmer, left to their own tax-the-rich or torch-the-government devices, would each be quite capable of pushing his party's statewide support down to its minimum level, leaving Horner running room down the middle. But each of the major-party candidates has an ace in the hole -- the other major-party candidate.

Many moderate Republicans may choke on the Mad Hatter's Tea Party menu Emmer is serving; many moderate DFLers may fear collateral damage from Dayton's class warfare, or harbor resentment about his hijacking the nomination from party endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Many on the edges of each camp may like the idea of a centrist alternative. But in the end fear that a vote for Horner could help elect Emmer, or help elect Dayton, could easily send one or both groups rushing home to defend the barricades against a barbarian onslaught.

And even at their smallest, the DFL and GOP bases are substantial. Just the anti-abortion, social-conservative vote, plus ever-true Republicans, could guarantee Emmer around a third of the vote. He probably can't get much less even if he keeps trying.

The DFL base is a more movable feast. It includes a lot of Minnesotans whose politics are a bit like Mark Twain's religion. "I'm a Presbyterian," Twain said. "I don't go to church, but it's the Presbyterian church I don't go to."

This, well, erratic DFL coalition could represent Horner's chance, such as it is, following the only model we have for an IP victory -- Jesse Ventura's in 1998 -- when Republican Norm Coleman held the GOP base and little more while it was in truth DFLer Skip Humphrey who shocked the world by polling less than 30 percent.

But you could make two Tom Horners out of Jesse Ventura -- and in more ways than one. Ventura was a cartoon character come to life, facing colorless opponents. He growled and wisecracked his way through stunningly blunt and simple answers to the great problem facing Minnesota in those bubbly dot-com days of 1998: Whatever would the state do with all the excess revenue it was collecting?

Needless to say, this year is different. The state's problems are problematic now, and it is Horner's opponents who are the vivified caricatures with the simple answers. Horner has all the swashbuckling swagger of an eighth-grade civics teacher with an unusually nice haircut.

And yet it should not go unnoted that Horner is a mild-mannered daredevil. It takes nerve nowadays to run, as Horner is, on a promise to raise nearly everybody's taxes while facing the need for real budget cuts. Horner's plan to broaden the sales tax to clothing and services (while reducing the overall rate and cutting corporate taxes) has the minor advantage of moving toward what many tax policy experts recommend. But populist pandering it is not. It's almost a relief that his plans include such divide-and-conquer gimmicks as soaking smokers and drinkers, and cutting the state in on the Indians' gambling action, along with some customary vagueness about the specifics of spending cuts.

Can Horner sell this grown-up medicine for what ails the state -- and by calling his proposals "common-sense solutions"? Most of the mendacity in politics begins with our leaders' incessant and obligatory flattering of the people. In truth, Dayton and Emmer have latched onto the common sense of what an ideal solution looks like -- raising somebody else's taxes or cutting somebody else's spending.

Horner is hoping that deep down people are ready for something less common and more sensible, and presented in a plain wrapper. He is at liberty to do so in this land of the free, and especially in this home of the brave. And who can really hate politics when such a high dive has even an apostate's prayer of succeeding?

D.J. Tice is at dtice@startribune.com.

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