Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Budget: How Republicans Failed Themselves

The early warning sign that dealing with Governor Mark Dayton would not be as easy for the republican legislative majority as it assumed came early on: at a signing ceremony to foolishly opt in to federal Obamacare funds, he let the leaders of the assembled opposition speak. Call it Dayton's Twila Brase moment. Governor Pawlenty would never have done that nor, MC is convinced, would a Governor Emmer. Yet there was the first democratic governor in decades doing the unexpected. A small gesture but impressive.

Months later, republicans find themselves boxed into a budget corner of their own making. Having won both the House and Senate, the latter for the first time since the 1970's, they should have been able to advance their core principles in a manner that consistently gave them the upper hand, despite the executive branch being controlled by the opposition. Instead, republicans find themselves on the defensive and playing a poor hand largely dealt to them by themselves.

The shortest analysis is that the republicans erred badly in sending only one "this is it we really mean it!" budget to the Governor and expecting him to roll over. Even that truncated analysis, however, obscures other problems with the manner in which the republican majority has performed. For example, running uniformly on a platform of bringing down government spending while not increasing taxes, one might plausibly have expected them to produce a budget that actually cut spending. Not a budget that was signed into law by the Governor, mind you. No, one that actually required of the majority some intestinal fortitude and made cuts to the bloated mess that is Minnesota state government. The idea that there isn't largess is laughable. The fact that the Minnesota government is the state's single largest employer is shameful.

At any rate, a genuine effort at putting their principles into play was not too much to expect of the brave new majority. For whatever reasons, though, this never came to be. MC understands that ideas championed by friends like Sue Jeffers for a budget of 28 billion was never politically realistic. Yet couldn't the majority have fashioned a budget of approximately 31 billion? Submit it to the certain veto, craft another one closer to, oh, say 34 billion and thereby look reasonable? Governor Dayton has had to do hardly anything to outfox the republicans. He and his staff are savvy enough to get out of the way when political opponents are making a hash of things on their own.

To be sure, the DFL in both chambers was petulant and unhelpful. Why there should have been any expectation other than that escapes MC and it was painful to see republicans waste time and energy trying to call them out in this regard. A competent majority leads. It doesn't whine.

This calls to mind the feeble response from the MN GOP to Dayton's claim of extremism and new members being too far right for Minnesota. Instead of executing a jujitsu like move and characterizing the governor as a failed paleo-liberal who hasn't had a new political idea in his adult life, republicans stayed on the territory mapped out by him and bleated that they were not extremists. Readers not on Twitter are unable to appreciate how pathetic this was as an effective political response. One was treated to tweets along the lines of "I'm a mother of 9, spin my own cloth, practice yoga daily and have amazing sex with my husband of 32 years. I'm no extremist." MC jests but only slightly. Moreover, new members fail to realize that Twitter drives the conversation but only rarely is the conversation.

Republicans were appalled when they lost to Mark Dayton last November, though some saw it coming for months. Still, reality is always stronger than expectation. The offset was winning the legislature and having someone like Mark Dayton to kick around. MC doesn't mean attacks on character or personal issues; it does mean a large target of being clueless during a time of economic peril. And here is perhaps the single biggest deficit of political acumen all year.

Governor Dayton should have been painted out from day one as the quintessential tax and spend liberal. He literally knows no other approach to policy which, upon reflection, is a very real poverty of intellect. His robotic insistence on raising taxes at all should have been his undoing, his neutralization. In the hands of a competent political opposition, it would have been. Instead, he was allowed to position himself as reasonable (he only wants to confiscate some people's money) while calling attention to purported republican instransigence. Perversely, this was accomplished because he lowered the amount of taxes he wanted to raise while still raising them at all in a dire economic climate. Republicans could never seem to find their footing to reframe the issue and show the average Minnesotan how preposterous, almost delusional, very Marin county, this type of thinking was. The result is that issues are framed across the board in a way that favor the Governor. They didn't need to be and there's the political malpractice.

There was also, unbelievably, the incoherent republican response to their proposed budget being an all cuts budget. Elected on their own terms to cut government spending, republican leadership responded by saying they increased spending by six percent, thereby managing to disgust their own base while playing into the narrative set by the left at the same time. Well done. MC shudders at the thought of an encore performance.

Yesterday Rep. Mary Franson tweeted "Spent the entire day in meetings around the district. Some attendees disappointed that Republicans were spending 6% more than last biennium." Well, yes, in a word and why should they not be? How do republicans square their actions with their campaign promises? Incompetence? Waffling? Caving? General ignorance about effective political messaging and delivery?

MC was amused at the faux bravery of legislators who put on their office doors posters that had a pot of money and words to the effect "34 billion and not a penny more." The posters should have read: "6% increase is enough of a broken campaign promise and sell out of my principles." But that wouldn't have left them feeling smug, apparently the only point of the real posters.

Before the session ended Minnesotans were treated to political grandstanding and theatrics not seen in some time when the House took up and ultimately passed the traditional marriage amendment. What a debacle. The usual suspects got emotional and non-rational on the floor and supporters stayed mute, as if the guilty party somehow. While the hearing did allow a sitting Representative to call MC an obscenity on Twitter, not much else good came of it. How did the Senate manage to pass the same bill without the public meltdown?

With the budget vetoed, shutdown became the word of the day. The RPM responded strongly with . . . a website! Governor Shutdown, get it? Tacking back to the day when Dayton closed his senate office, the website perfectly captures the inability of republicans to get it. Universally panned as ineffective, the website is now mostly forgotten.

Proving there was worse yet to come, however, the republican brain trust decided that re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would take people's attention off the cold water rushing in. House and Senate leadership ostentatiously offered to provide approximately 110 million dollars more in funding for, as they put it in baby-speak, "kids, cops and courts." In adult language: education, police and the judicial branch. This was claimed to be a compromise but it's terrible to insult people's intelligence regardless of party affiliation.

There was no movement from the 34 billion budget as a result of this offer. There may well be merit in focusing on particular areas within the overall budget for political and policy reasons. All well and good but to call it a compromise makes republicans look venal. Isn't there anyone thinking a step or two ahead in these matters? Where do republicans go from here?

MC understands from sources that the party and possibly legislative leadership meet once a week with a select group of activists for feedback and guidance. The only problem with this is that MC is lead to understand the group consists of those who thought focusing on the tip-credit issue during the gubernatorial race was a good idea. Weirdly, if this is true, why the legislative session unfolded as it did makes a bit more sense, though no less depressing. Perhaps these meetings are mere containment of the purity people; one is hard pressed to guess. What isn't hard to discern is the current state of failure.

Add to this the Alliance for a Better Minnesota going up on air with well produced but duplicitous ads. The republican response? Nothing, really, though MC was told by some that money was coming in after Memorial Day weekend to push back. So far there's been nothing but a poorly produced ad from the Taxpayers League and some web ads.

How does this end? MC doesn't gamble except in its choice of friends. It is difficult to see Governor Dayton accepting the badly played budget of 34 billion and avoiding a shut down. Does a shut down hurt republicans or democrats more? In one sense neither side wants to find out. This suggests that there will be no new taxes but there will be more money, the dreaded revenue word. Having abandoned their principles by agreeing to a 6% increase in spending over the last biennium, republicans will find it difficult to complain with a straight face about going to 7 or 7.5 percent. And let's not forget some of this revenue could come from racino, the issue which so unified the republican party in April. Yes, it's been a masterful six months for the majority party.

The criticism of RPM Chair Tony Sutton, however, seems a bit unbalanced. Is the party to have no influence over the legislators who ran under its banner? Sutton's public comments have been lambasted but MC forgives all for his giving us "bored dilettente" to perfectly capture the essence of wandering ghost Mark Dayton. Legislative leaders now appear to be distancing themselves from him but MC can only speculate how wobbly they would have been if not for Sutton encouraging them to stiffen what passes for spines. He was, after all, only reminding them of the promises they themselves made to the voters.

In the end, there will likely be a special session to pass the budget deal hammered out over the coming weeks. No republican legislator or party leader, however, should claim victory when this happens. Instead, they should explain why they performed so badly and what they intend to do to make sure such a performance is not repeated in the next session. It's their last chance.


Anonymous said...

Republicans haven't just failed themselves. They've failed all of us by allowing a small extreme right win group to run their party. Instead of answering to their constituents they now answer to a very small group of unelected elite within their party (Sutton, Koch, et al).

Polls are showing that most Minnesotans favor a balanced approach to solving the budget crisis (cuts and revenues); most Minnesotans don't care about the social issues (gay marriage, abortion) as much as they care about creating jobs right now. Republicans ran on creating jobs and strengthening the economy. How are they doing that with cuts to the U (and tuition increases) and removing the renter's tax credit?

MikeWBL said...

MC has it mostly right in that the GOP gained the majority in both the House & the Senate not on gay marriage or abortion but on balancing the budget. The House & Senate GOP Caucuses poorly managed their mandate as well as their message.

The message should have been pretty simple to communicate. The 2010-2011 budget called for $30 Billion and Gov Dayton called for $37 Billion for 2012-2013. The revenue forecast called for $34 Billion which in itself a compromise between what the GOP mandate ($30 Billion) called for and what the DFL mandate ($37 Billion) called for.

Anonymous said...

John, you run for Minnesota GOP Chair. Always enjoy your posts which are too few but on point. The first commenter is right, the party has abandoned the 2010 message that won the House and Senate by chasing social issues before nailing down the budget cuts. The voter turnout was very low (about 54%) in 2010 and the Minnesota GOP got lucky. The 2012 Presidential election will see a much larger turnout. GOP overreaching is setting itself up for a 2012 disaster.

The question is what if anything are you and the less radical wing of the party willing to do to take the Minnesota GOP back from Sutton? From where I sit, the GOP has wasted their mandate and Mark Dayton and Ken Martin are beating him at every turn.

Time is getting short and the clock keeps running towards 2012.

Anonymous said...

Second paragraph:
"they should have been able to advance their core principles in a manner that consistently gave them the upper hand,"
Please be patient.
Dick Cohen's senate didn't present the Republicans with budget spreadsheets and time tables.
Not a surprise but not condusive to smooth transition either.

To understand this session consider Pawlenty & Dayton.

Pawlenty, like many freshman GOP is a behind the scenes numbers guy.
Pawlenty had a website replete with analysis, and a principled work ethic and time table.
Pawlenty responded meaningfully to all constituents.

Dayton is nowhere near the level of Pawlenty's level of detail and professionalism.
Dayton has not yet transparently responded to any DFL legislator, let alone Republican,
the way Pawlenty responded to liberals like Steiger, green energy, city and county orgs, and rail people. Dems know it and we shoot ourselves in the foot by saying anything otherwise.

Jamie Delton