Were it not for all the legislative special-session talk last week, nostalgia would have been sloshing around my desk.
The calendar says it’s time for biennial goodbyes. Yet for much of last week, a chance remained that — for one last time — courtly Sen. LeRoy Stumpf would roll out a $1 billion bonding bill, Sen. Rod Skoe would patiently explain the 2016 tax bill, Senate Republican leader David Hann would call DFL decisions into question, and the indomitable Rep. Phyllis Kahn would pop up on the House floor to share a scrap of institutional memory.
Alas, that chance slipped away amid a flurry of paritsan accusations Friday. Kahn will leave the House at the end of December after 44 years, at age 79. I’ll call that exceptional public service while acknowledging a few other elders in state House ranks: Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, age 87 and an 11-termer, is also leaving — for the second time. Rep. Jerry Newton, 79, is about to become Sen. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids, perhaps the oldest freshman senator in state history. Rep. Lyndon Carlson of Crystal, a mere 76, will be back in 2017 for his 45th year. With Kahn’s departure, he’ll stand alone as the state’s longest-serving House member.
Some politicians opt to let the voters determine when they’ll retire. Not so for a fellow who made the rounds for exit interviews last week, U.S. Rep. John Kline.
Kline, 69, announced 15 months ago without a trace of mixed feeling that he would step down after seven terms in the hothouse that is the U.S. House. As the old year ends, the Second District Republican is leaving office with the same steady, no-nonsense demeanor that he brought to politics two decades ago from a distinguished 25-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
I’m tempted to attach end-of-an-era significance to Kline’s departure. He’s been the Minnesota member of Congress most firmly planted in what has been Republican middle ground in the past two decades. He’s fiscally cautious but not antigovernment. He’s an internationalist who believes America should play a leadership role in the world. He wants U.S. borders respected but understands the value of immigration. He’s done the responsible thing on the nation’s debt ceiling and the 2008 rescue of the economy. He’s a loyal team player, respectful of the institution in which he has served.
In other words, Kline is conservative, but he’s no libertarian.
The same cannot be said with certainty about the fellow who will succeed him in Congress in two weeks, Jason Lewis. Or the one who will occupy the White House after Jan. 20, Donald Trump. Lewis sounded lots of libertarian notes during more than two decades on talk radio. Trump is a populist who’s been all over the ideological map at one time or another.
A case can be made that their elections herald the rise of a new Republican philosophical arc in state and national politics. It looks to be more libertarian on matters like environmental protection, energy and health care; more protectionist in trade and immigration policy, and more hesitant to deploy military force abroad than most Republicans have been to date.
This year could be an inflection point in GOP history, I suggested to Kline, just as was President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, or Minnesota’s 1994 U.S. Senate switch from moderate-minded Dave Durenberger to conservative Rod Grams.
Then again, Kline cautioned, maybe not. It’s too early to say.
“Very few people know where Donald Trump will stand” on a host of issues, Kline said. But as president, Trump must deal with a Republican House majority that Kline says is still dominated by people who think like he does.
“The vast majority of the Republican Party is still pro-defense and believes in American leadership in the world. We still believe in doing what we can to allow the private sector to be able to expand. … And there’s widespread recognition among Republicans that we need to do something about entitlements soon, or they won’t be there for succeeding generations,” he said.
“We don’t know yet what Trump is going to present to us. But my guess is that he won’t be far from the vast majority of House Republicans.”
Kline was so unperturbed about the condition of the national GOP that I was startled at his negative assessment of the health of the Minnesota Republican Party. “It’s terrible,” he said.
He quickly added that he means no criticism of today’s party leaders or elected officials. That includes his successor. Kline said he likes Lewis, even though he preferred Burnsville business owner Darlene Miller over the talk-radio celebrity in the Aug. 9 primary.
Rather, Kline exercised a lame duck’s license to critique Minnesota’s bifurcated candidate selection process.
Minnesota relies on precinct caucuses and conventions to produce party endorsements in the spring, followed by a primary in August to finalize nominations. It’s a scheme that suppresses citizen participation, Kline said. Too few people care to attend inside-baseball party confabs in late winter, and too few people vote in ill-timed August primaries, in part because the field of candidates has already been narrowed.
He didn’t say it, but I will: The result is the election of politicians more beholden to small, narrow bases than to the general public. That leads directly to what Minnesotans witnessed last week in St. Paul. DFLers led by Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans by House Speaker Kurt Daudt continued their umpteenth week of gridlock over three bills that are ripe for enactment — tax relief, public works financing, and a discount for the 121,000 Minnesotans getting hammered with high individual-market health insurance premiums. All three deserve to become law.
Retired politicians have been known to extend their service to their country by spearheading efforts to reform the political process. Working to create a more-inclusive candidate selection process in Minnesota might not be as much fun as going fishing with the grandkids. But it’s a challenge worthy of the newly minted elder statesman in the Second District.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.