DFL-led Legislature: New era or new error?

  • Article by: STEVEN E. SCHIER
  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 4:14 PM

Or both? There are reasons why Democrats could cement their power -- and reasons to hope they can't.

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Incoming Legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton talk about the upcoming legislative session, in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. From left are, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, House Majority Leader Paul Thissen, Gov. Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Is enduring one-party rule arriving in Minnesota with the new year?

The resounding Democratic successes in the 2012 elections have made the DFL the dominant party in the Legislature, in state constitutional offices (it holds all of them) and in the state's congressional delegation (now with seven Democrats and three Republicans). Democrats enter 2013 with unified control of the governorship and Legislature for the first time in 22 years.

But are Democrats really capable of dominating state politics for the long term?

Yes -- but one-party rule would be bad for Minnesota if it becomes the new norm.

There are three reasons to conclude that DFLers can dominate state government for an extended period. First, they have done so in the not-so-distant past; Republicans have not. Second, the DFL regularly has more loyal voters in the Minnesota electorate than does the GOP. And third, the state GOP has lately become less competitive in state elections.

In the 38 years since the Minnesota Legislature adopted partisan labels in 1974, Democrats have simultaneously controlled both chambers of the statehouse and governorship for 12 years -- from 1974-78 and 1982-90. During those periods, DFL Govs. Wendell Anderson and Rudy Perpich were the prime movers in state policymaking, thanks to supportive legislative majorities. No Republican governor since 1974 has enjoyed such unified legislative backing.

One big advantage for Democrats in recent years has been the greater number of voters who identify themselves with the party in the Minnesota electorate, which impedes GOP competitiveness. Exit polls have found a DFL advantage among voters ranging from three percentage points in 2000 to eight percentage points in 2012 and 10 percentage points in 1996.

Finally, the recent rise of the state's Democrats was made possible by the decline of the Minnesota GOP. That downfall had several causes.

 

GOP mistakes

Polls indicated that the public tended to blame the Republican-controlled Legislature, not Gov. Mark Dayton, for the unpopular government shutdown in 2011. Meanwhile, the scandal involving an affair between GOP staffer Michael Brodkorb and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch likely was the most recognized news story about that institution in the minds of many 2012 voters.

It's also clear now that the Republicans overreached by putting two state constitutional amendments on the ballot. The amendments -- banning same-sex marriage and instituting photo-identification procedures for voting -- ended up energizing opponents and damaging Republicans up and down the ballot on Election Day. Volunteers and cash flowed disproportionately to amendment foes, who helped to turn out voters who were also disinclined to vote for Republicans for any office.

Cash is another big problem for the state's GOP. Due to mismanagement, the party remains about $1.5 million in debt. That is a big impediment to electoral competitiveness.

Accompanying mismanagement and legislative missteps is the increasing ideological insularity of the state's GOP. In 2010, the state party's central committee imposed a two-year expulsion from party activities upon former GOP U.S. Sen. David Durenberger and former Govs. Al Quie and Arne Carlson for ideological deviations.

A tiny group of fewer than 26,000 activists appeared at 2012's GOP precinct caucuses. Their unrepresentative opinions gave the unelectable Rick Santorum the caucus victory in the presidential nomination race and left eventual national nominee Mitt Romney in third place.

Once Santorum dropped out, GOP activists gave a large majority of the state party's national delegates to another unelectable candidate, Ron Paul. Minnesota's GOP delegation was one of only three state delegations with Ron Paul majorities at the national convention, and it cast the most Paul votes of any state's delegation.

Kurt Bills, the party's state convention U.S. Senate endorsee, voiced Paulite positions and wound up with 30.5 percent of the vote in November -- the worst electoral performance by a major party nominee for U.S. Senate in decades.

The Minnesota Republican Party has to decide whether it wants to govern or engage in ideological self-indulgence. Electoral victories can only come from electable candidates, who tend not to be the favorite of GOP state conventions.

Since 1978 --34 years ago -- only one GOP gubernatorial candidate, Tim Pawlenty, has won the convention endorsement and has gone on to general-election victory. Yet Pawlenty, in his two gubernatorial victories, never received a majority of the popular vote. The sole GOP-endorsed candidate to win a U.S. Senate race since the national GOP "wave" year of 1994 was Norm Coleman in the extraordinary 2002 election, marked by DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone's October death in a plane crash. Running against last-minute candidate Walter Mondale, Coleman won but also failed to secure a majority of the vote.

An earlier, contested primary is a first step to fielding more electable GOP candidates for statewide office. GOP legislators concerned about the future of their party should press for that change in the 2013 session.

 

'Blue model' blues

But perhaps one-party dominance by Democrats will prove to be a boon for Minnesota? The record of other states dominated by Democrats gives little reassurance of this.

Walter Russell Mead -- a professor at Bard College and a supporter of President Obama -- provides an incisive critique of the "blue social model" evident in states long dominated by Democrats, such as Illinois, New York and California. The model is his summary description of the 20th-century welfare state promoted by the Democratic Party.

The blue model depended on solid economic growth to provide resources for Democrats, who then delivered steadily increasing benefits to favored constituencies. Mead describes it as a system in which "a career civil service administered a growing state as living standards for all classes steadily rose."

The model is no longer sustainable, Mead argues, due to demographic changes -- fewer workers and more retirees in the future -- and a national economy that is unlikely to return to the boom periods of the 1950s and '60s, when major welfare-state expansion occurred.

The result, according to Mead, involves three crises for "blue model" states. First, governments can't afford their commitments to public-employee pensions and to other favored constituencies. Second, government employment and administrative systems are often outdated and poorly equipped to respond nimbly to increasing rates of change in communication technologies and to social and economic conditions. Third, governments caught in decades-old welfare-state thinking often come up with poor solutions to new problems.

For evidence of blue-state difficulties, one doesn't have to look far. The New York Times recently reported on two of the largest blue-model states: "Illinois has the lowest credit rating of the 50 states and has America's second-biggest public debt per capita. ... Only New York state's debt is bigger. ... Yet despite all that borrowing, Illinois' public pension system is still in tatters."

What of the largest blue-model state, California? It has set modern records for public-sector debt. Voters there in 2012 raised tax rates to the highest among the 50 states for high-income earners, but the state still faces chronic debt problems: $13 billion this year and forecasts nowhere near balance for the next four years, according the state's Legislative Analyst's Office.

The essential problem is with one-party rule itself. Lengthy periods of one-party rule allow a governing party to indulge its less desirable tendencies without fear of reprisal. In the case of the GOP, that can mean starving government of needed resources and programs. For Democrats, it can mean growing government beyond a sustainable size, as has happened in New York, California and Illinois.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 52, noted the need for frequent checks of the power of the governors: "It is a received and well founded maxim, that ... the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration; and, conversely, the smaller the power, the more safely may its duration be protracted."

The Democrats' welfare state has created governmental power far larger than that ever contemplated by Hamilton and the other founders. It follows that a short duration of any party's complete control over such power is desirable and consistent with Hamilton's maxim.

Some discount Hamilton's warning, arguing that divided government produces nothing but gridlock and frustration. Though such stagnation can occur, it is not inevitable. Yale scholar David Mayhew, in a landmark study of national policymaking, found that periods of divided government actually produced more major legislation than did periods of one-party rule.

What happened in Washington can happen in Minnesota if each of the parties' values results over ideology. And ultimately, what matters to most voters are results. That is the sure path to electoral success for either major party.

Regardless of policy output, closely competitive political parties produce accountable government and prevent either major party from indulging its worst tendencies. If strong two-party competition produces divided government, that is a risk well worth taking.

All Minnesotans will benefit from a future in which both major parties can seriously contest all major races. It's up to the state's GOP to reform itself so that it can again be an effective competitive force.

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Steven E. Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield.

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