Lori Sturdevant: This showdown is familiar

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2011 - 7:11 PM

Is the debt-ceiling debate a replay of our shutdown, or did nationalization creep up on Minnesota?

I'm not the only Minnesotan who watched the debt ceiling crisis envelop Washington last week with a sense that she was seeing a bad rerun.

Didn't we just go through something strikingly, eerily similar?

"It certainly sounds like Minnesota's most recent chapter," said someone steeped in both the state budget drama and the ways of Washington, Gov. Mark Dayton.

"The roles seem very familiar," the DFL governor and former U.S. senator observed.

"There's a president [Dayton, in the Minnesota rendition] willing to compromise, to the consternation of his most liberal supporters. A House speaker who seemingly would like to make an historic deal, but is prevented from doing so by his newest right-wing members. The Republicans characterizing a tax increase on only the wealthiest citizens as a tax increase on everyone. And the nation heading toward a cliffhanger moment."

Of course, Dayton noted, a 20-day partial state shutdown is a glide down a gentle slope, compared to the cavern into which the nation could drop if it were to default on its obligations.

A Republican in Washington with recent Minnesota legislative ties said he sees a parallel, too. Third District U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a former state House majority leader, said that the shutdown and the debt crisis share the same root cause.

"It's centered on spending, spending being high. Minnesota families and small businesses have certainly had to cut back during challenging economic times. They have every reason to expect that their leaders at the state and federal level are going to do the same."

Except for those families that have lost jobs and/or health insurance. Or that need help caring for a disabled or frail elderly loved one or educating the next generation. Or whose jobs were secured by stimulus spending -- and are now in doubt.

Paulsen conceded that Minnesotans likely see their state's spending in a comparatively positive light.

"In Minnesota there is a high value for the spending that has happened -- the quality-of-life portion," he said. "I've noticed that a lot more people question whether they're getting much value from Washington."

Yes. But I've noticed that fewer Minnesotans make much of a state/federal distinction anymore.

Nationalization -- a trend that's been creeping up on Minnesota politics and government for decades -- seemed to pounce in St. Paul this year. State government seemed to be acquiring Washington's bad habits by the armful -- hyper-partisanship, brinksmanship, and in the end, deficit spending. (That's the unvarnished name for borrowing against future tobacco lawsuit proceeds.)

New Republican majorities in St. Paul brought with them legislative agendas that seemed to spring directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national network of conservative legislators.

If, as it seems, the Minnesota meltdown was a preview of the federal crisis, then this state can tell the nation how it will end -- with a temporary fix and a resolve to duke it out in the next election. That way, a cynic would note, deep-pocketed national campaign funders will stay fully engaged.

The turnaround from the situation 35 years ago is amazing. Then Minnesota's GOP was so keen on distancing itself from the Watergate-era Washington GOP that it changed its name to Independent-Republican.

The "Independent" name was dropped in 1995. The independent spirit? I'm hoping for its revival.

It's hard for a state to be "nation-leading" -- former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's favorite boosterism boast -- if one of its two leading political parties aims for its state government to align with the other 49.

To borrow from the great American jurist Louis Brandeis, a lot of work needs doing in the local "laboratory of democracy" in the next few years. In health care, education, economic development and more, Minnesota developed successful state-specific systems through the decades that need renewal now -- not to make them match their less successful counterparts, but to make them more cost-effectively consistent with Minnesota's values and traditions.

Paulsen alluded to one of those traditions: a belief that government contributes to a better quality of life.

That belief has been shaken by the second shutdown in six years. It will keep eroding if Minnesota continues to mimic Washington-style partisanship and gridlock. I'm rooting for a return of (small-i) independent Republicans.

Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist.

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