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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Minnesota’s Path Toward the Presidency

April 22, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota has done great things with limited resources. That’s especially benefited us in presidential politics. Consider that the presidential nomination process comes to Minnesota late and disinterestedly. Consequently, Minnesota has learned to go to the nation. This year, Minnesota offers America a set of choices that seem almost non-Minnesotan.

A generation ago, Vice President Walter Mondale sought and received the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Nearly twenty years before that, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy contested for the 1968 Democratic endorsement. Humphrey triumphed in what proved to be a pyrrhic victory.

Going back even further, Governors Harold Stassen and Floyd B. Olson worked presidential ambitions. Stassen’s bid misfired when he publicly called for President Eisenhower to drop Vice President Richard Nixon from the 1956 re-election ticket. Nixon, as we now know, had a long memory and the means and will to punish his enemies. Olson eyeballed succeeding President Franklin Roosevelt but died from stomach cancer while preparing a U.S. Senate campaign and a leap to greater national prominence.

Since Mondale’s 1984 campaign, Governor Rudy Perpich, Senator Paul Wellstone and Governor Jesse Ventura all took tentative steps toward national candidacy. Ventura continues to suggest that he might run as a third-party alternative.

This year, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Sixth District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann are actively seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Minnesota is not done offering itself to the nation.

From the progressive perspective, it’s easy to lump Pawlenty and Bachmann together as determined advocates of broad conservative policy prescriptions. But, it’s not that simple. Yes, they’re both vigorous, unapologetic conservatives but their political lives reveal the tension troubling Minnesota. In a nutshell, Pawlenty is Mr. Inside while Bachmann is Ms. Outside.

Early on, Pawlenty aligned himself with the establishment, royalist wing of the conservative movement. He consistently advocates fiscal restraint and tax policy favoring Minnesota’s highest income earners. Pawlenty, in tandem with state legislative leaders, aggressively shifted costs into future accounting periods in order to avoid revenue increases. He doesn’t represent a threat to the system because he is the system.

Bachmann’s politics, while very conservative, demonstrate a willingness to stir and then capitalize on populist discontent. Her public policy narratives aren’t based on data and detail so much as they’re anchored in emotion. She’s the carnival barker, huckstering folks to see the salamander boy, to Pawlenty’s circus ringmaster.

The two share a powerful common element. It’s the last thing either will admit. Without considerable Minnesota public investment in the schools, roads, public health and economic development throughout their lives, there wouldn’t be a Michelle Bachmann or a Tim Pawlenty running for President.

Both are products of public schools. Pawlenty graduated from South St Paul High School; Bachmann from Anoka High School. Pawlenty is a University of Minnesota graduate; Bachmann graduated from Winona State University. Their families’ economic security and middle-class rank depends on Minnesota’s economic and regulatory infrastructure.

Public investment allowed Pawlenty and Bachmann to develop their talents, leading to their lives in political leadership. Without that investment, a truck driver’s son and a divorced bank teller’s daughter would have had many fewer, if any, opportunities for advanced education. Today, as national candidates, they would limit the benefits that they enjoyed. Rather than embrace the Minnesota traditions propelling their rise, they’ve instead chosen to repudiate them.

We call that pulling the ladder up behind you. It’s not a very Minnesotan thing to do.

Pawlenty and Bachmann offer personal/political narratives rooted in Minnesota virtues and community. Pawlenty, more than Bachmann, repeatedly downplays his strong conservative policy record when engaging mainstream audiences. He suggests that he’s in-step rather than out of step with mainstream values. He’s not. His vigorous defense of conservative “no new taxes” policy, creating a lower tax burden on Minnesota’s highest income earners while shifting community costs to middle and lower-income earners, reveals that he’s not on our side. This policy isn’t a one-time, aberrational flyer; rather, it’s his career capstone.

Despite the heated rhetoric, understand that Minnesota’s community investments, across generations, in schools, healthcare, transportation infrastructure, and a vigorous, diversified economy created Pawlenty and Bachmann. That community vision has given all of us, millions of us, legs. It’s allowed us to grow prosperity. Consequently, it’s dismaying to witness two national leadership bids that would abandon that tradition.

Generations of Minnesotans have regularly disagreed over policy detail but we’re united in the idea that, together, we’re building something better for the next generation. In the conservative policy vision, we find not only vigorous opposition to that idea but a ready willingness to tear down tradition in favor of the shortest of short-term gains. This policy is moving Minnesota backwards, not ahead.

If we focus on what really matterss—schools, jobs, healthcare and roads—Minnesota offers the nation a model for leveraging dubious assets into compelling economic growth. Our community traditions have created a regular stream of national leadership aspirants. The best of those embraced Minnesota’s successful path but our state’s success is stronger than any individual leader. That’s the real lesson learned from repeated presidential bids.

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