I was debating whether to go to the Turkish-Syrian border this week or to visit my old high school in Minnesota. I decided to make the exotic foreign trip and come to Minnesota. I thought it might be useful to look at this election through the window of my hometown of St. Louis Park. I have not been disappointed. I found in this little suburb of 45,250 people -- which was memorialized in the movie, "A Serious Man," directed by the Coen brothers, who also hail from here -- all the key trends impacting America.
For starters, there is the changing face of the town. We had two African-Americans among the 2,500 students at St. Louis Park High when I graduated in 1971, and everyone there was either Christian or Jewish. When I walked through the high school cafeteria on Monday, there were six teenage girls covered in colorful Muslim hijabs, and the principal, Robert Metz, explained to me that "today we have more Muslim students than Jewish students." This is the byproduct of the huge influx of Somali refugees to Minnesota. Metz said my old high school, which now has open enrollment and competes for students from around the area, attracts young people both for its academic rigor and because they want to go to a richly diverse school that mirrors the world in which they'll be working. There are more than 30 languages spoken in the elementary school near my old house -- exactly 29 more than when I lived here.
Mayor Jeffrey Jacobs of St. Louis Park notes that 85 percent of residents here today don't have kids in local public schools, yet they regularly vote to increase real estate taxes to improve these schools, because they understand that "you cannot cheapskate yourself to greatness" and "they see value for their money." But that attitude is no longer held statewide.
When I was growing up, my congressmen were liberal Republicans (there was no other kind in Minnesota back then) in a Democratic district. No one thought anything of it. Today my congressman here would be Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim and one of the most liberal Democrats in the House, while liberal Republicans in Minnesota today are as rare as a two-headed moose. The state House and Senate Republican caucuses today are dominated by the tea party and libertarian followers of Ron Paul.
But here's what's telling. These GOP hard-liners, while able to win their more conservative "exurbia" and rural districts, are not doing well when it comes to overall state politics. Minnesotans have not wanted to entrust them with the governorship or national Senate seats, which is another way of explaining why Mitt Romney only gained ground on President Obama when he started to market himself as a moderate ready to work with Democrats. Note to Mitt: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, is up for re-election here and leading her libertarian GOP opponent by 43 percentage points in the latest Star Tribune/Mason-Dixon poll (65 to 22) and in one report this summer was found to have $5.4 million in campaign cash on hand while her opponent had $5,800. That is not a typo.
Note to Obama: Klobuchar built that lead by combining a moderate liberalism with a probusiness, projobs agenda and a pragmatic problem-solving approach. All of Klobuchar's campaign ads are positive, and many feature Republican business leaders explaining why they are voting for her. Most Minnesota voters "want their politicians to be problem-solvers, not ideologues," Klobuchar said to me. Sen. Al Franken, who's also laser-focused on jobs, boasted to me that Minnesota is now the "Silicon Valley of windows," because of all the high-tech window manufacturers here. Franken, who's also a St. Louis Park native, added, "Minnesota wants its politicians to operate on principles, but if one of your principles is to never compromise, they don't want that."
Many business-oriented Republicans here are not only voting for Klobuchar but are giving her money, because they've become frustrated by the far-right lurch of the state GOP, explained Lawrence Jacobs, a politics expert at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. The state is home to many global companies that would accept some tax increases to build better infrastructure and schools in order to have better-educated workers. And the Republican-dominated Chamber of Commerce here is leading the charge for open immigration, so Minnesota can bring in more knowledge workers from India to enrich its workforce.
"In Minnesota, for many years, we had a party structure that was dominated by leaders who wanted to win and problem-solve," Jacobs said. Now, he added, the state Republican Party is dominated by Tea Party and libertarian insurgents, not the business community, and their attitude is "we play for principles and if we lose so be it."
So there is a fight here for the soul of the Republican Party. In the 1990s, centrist Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, brought their party back from a similar ideological ledge; they and the country and my home state are better for it. The Republicans have not had their "reformation," but it's brewing here in Minnesota, and I hope it goes national if Romney loses -- and even more so if he wins.
Thomas L. Friedman's column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.