"Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect."
Franklin Roosevelt's key aide, Harry Hopkins, coined this mantra as the formula for Democratic political success. Responding to the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, FDR's New Deal in the 1930s included new taxes, spending on large new government programs — and nearly four decades of Democratic political dominance.
Popular programs like Social Security, the GI Bill, and large public works programs created loyal constituencies that voted Democratic for a generation. Midcentury Republicans swam against prevailing political tides.
Minnesota Democrats are hoping for something similar after this year's legislative session. There were new taxes passed this session, more modest than critics have suggested but still a notable political move in the face of an $18 billion dollar budget surplus. And the Democrats passed much new spending including more money for education, free school lunch for all, rural broadband, paid family leave, free college, child-care assistance, credits for electric cars and a child tax credit heralded to significantly reduce child poverty.
Republicans decried the taxing and spending as irresponsible and predicted that Minnesota voters will punish the DFL in 2024. Gov. Tim Walz echoed Harry Hopkins and contended that Minnesotans will reward the DFL for passing popular new programs.
When the New Deal era ended in the late 20th century, Hopkin's "tax and tax, spend and spend" dictum became an electoral albatross. Calling someone a "tax and spend liberal" was a potent political barb. Republicans became dominant by decrying government and extolling tax cuts in every election. Democrats had some success, but usually when they sounded most like Republicans. It was new Democrat Bill Clinton who campaigned on a middle-class tax cut, reforming welfare, tougher crime laws and declaring that the "era of big government is over."
Minnesota Republicans continue this anti-government and anti-tax strategy. But has it lost its power? In the current political era, raising taxes — especially taxes others pay — is not the political liability it once was. And cutting spending is also politically difficult. In the recent debt-limit standoff, Republicans said they favored big spending cuts — but they left the largest programs untouched. Together with interest on the federal debt, Social Security, military spending, Medicare and other health programs make up about three-fourths of the federal budget and are too popular to cut.
Similarly, Minnesota Republicans have not made bold proposals for spending cuts. Political boldness these days is seen around free school lunches and more funding for public education, free college, paid family leave, support for child care and help for affordable housing.
The Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and Tim Pawlenty rose to power in an era when citizens increasingly mistrusted government. In the 1960s, three-quarters of American citizens told pollsters that they trusted the federal government to do what is right all or most of the time. Later, fueling Republican success, the proportion of citizens showing the same level of trust plummeted to 25%.
Can Democrats rebuild trust in government and enjoy renewed dominance? The evidence is mixed. Former President Barack Obama pushed through universal health care but Democrats were punished in the 2010 and 2014 elections. President Joe Biden pushed through significant new spending on infrastructure and climate policy and Democrats overperformed in the 2022 midterm election.
Minnesota Republicans have echoed their earlier winning formula by condemning DFL spending and calling for tax cuts. Yet they have added new strategies including the nomination last year of a vaccine-skeptic for governor who was endorsed by Donald Trump. At the national level, Republicans lead with condemnations of immigration, antiracist education and transgender rights. And while they tout support for smaller government, they favor more activist government to control what teachers teach, to build border walls and to criminalize abortion.
The political winds seem to favor Democrats, yet success is never guaranteed. Walz's approval ratings remain above 50% and Minnesota Republicans have not won a statewide election in nearly two decades. Nationally, Republicans have lost the presidential popular vote in seven of the last eight elections.
It seems Americans are receptive to both new government programs and a narrow range of new taxes. The New Deal is long gone. Issues of race, abortion access and immigration create a new political climate. Nonetheless, an updated version of Harry Hopkins' formula could possibly work again.
Dan Hofrenning is professor of political science and environmental studies at St. Olaf College.