Wednesday, June 07, 2006

COLUMN -- Why conservatives are steamed at Pawlenty and what to do about it

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:50 AM |  

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Cut to the chase — if you're a Republican of any stripe, Tim Pawlenty is the finest governor this state has had for decades. He erased a 2003 budget deficit of $4.5 billion dollars without raising taxes. On his watch, Minnesota dropped from the fourth highest-taxed state in the nation to 16th. The state economy is growing again.

So why are conservatives so ticked off at the governor? Why is the 2006 campaign a watershed moment for the Minnesota Republican Party?

No new pledges. Following a tough endorsement battle with conservative Brian Sullivan in 2002, Pawlenty campaigned on the back of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota's "no new taxes" pledge. Sticking to the pledge and balancing the budget elevated the governor to a platinum-card-carrying conservative.

But like a teenager with his first credit card, the governor drew down his capital with eclectic exuberance. He made a godfather-like offer to Native American tribes of "voluntary" partnership that would have expanded casino gambling. He signed onto a minimum wage bill, the Northstar Line, a 20 percent ethanol mandate, and he flip-flopped on the stadium issue. But it was a 75-cents-a-pack "health impact fee" on cigarettes that finally put a hold on his line of conservative credibility.

Conservatives were embarrassed by the obvious semantic ploy of "fee" versus "tax." They were angered that the governor proposed the fee knowing revenue projections made it possible to increase education funding without raising taxes. He gave conservative legislators Sophie's choice with a health and human services bill that contained both the hated health impact fee and anti-abortion provisions.

And what's the political lesson the governor learned from this?

"I'm not signing any more pledges for any group for any reason," he told Pioneer Press reporter Bill Salisbury.

OK, then what? To his credit, speaking to the state Republican convention, Pawlenty acknowledged that he had disappointed conservatives. He said he was working hard to change the state's liberal tradition, "and we do not want to go back."

"I can tell you what your worst nightmare is," he said, tossing out some red meat. "It's one of the big-spendin', tax-raisin', abortion-promotin', gay marriage-embracin', more welfare-without-accountability-lovin', school reform-resistin', illegal immigration-supportin' Democrats for governor who think Hillary Clinton should be president of the United States."

The riff drew rousing cheers from convention delegates. One hopes, however, that on reflection Republicans realize the difference between being the party of less government and the party of limited government. As pundit David Frum notes of the national GOP, it's one thing to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision into law. It's another to have a vision of one's own.

Reinventing Republicans. With the budget crisis behind them in 2004, Republicans had the opportunity to make some real structural reforms to state government. Instead, they adopted the Democratic strategy of constituency politics. The governor spent his political capital on legislation distributing government goodies to special interests on the right and the left and signing a billion-dollar bonding bill to take care of anybody that might feel left out.

This philosophical abandonment of limited government in favor of less government (than Democrats propose) has the Minnesota GOP locked into a "worst nightmare" campaign strategy. They cannot repudiate the last two sessions of constituency politics, so they appear stuck with a campaign theme of "You got yours, but you didn't get as much as the Democrats would have given you, and that's why we're better."

There is, however, another alternative for the GOP — uncovering or creating alternative constituencies that have a vested interest in free-market activities. In other words: Don't necessarily propose cutting government, but rather push structural changes that create value and reduce the demand for government.

Ripe areas include parental school choice and expanded free-market education, a market-oriented health care strategy and removing government-imposed barriers that inhibit development of innovative, private sector mass transit. Open doors for entrepreneurs by eliminating unnecessary and overly restrictive occupational licenses. Follow the model of the eminent-domain reform legislation and set criteria limiting government intervention in individual health issues; set rigid criteria for bonding proposals.

Admittedly, there's more risk to running on policy than running on a platform of "Democrats are dog doo-doo," but putting forth policy demonstrates a substantive desire to responsibly govern.

Crafted with care and pursued with passion, a strategy that creates and supports free-market constituencies is something conservatives can enthusiastically support.

Update: The Savage Republican writes -- The MN Tea Party is a group of conservatives who are trying to work within the party to take it back for those who believe in true conservative principals, to keep those who share these beliefs from leaving the party and becoming marginalized. We have issued a call to action -- urging congressional district executive committees to pass motions asking that no Special Taxing Session be held. Check out the MN Tea Party at