Friday, December 15, 2006

COLUMN -- Consensus is useful, but not for the sake of consensus

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:50 AM |  

Friday, December 15, 2006

Washington Post writer David Broder, whose column "Dealing with urgent problem, grown-up group worked it out" appeared on this page last week, quotes former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson gushing over the process that produced the Iraq Study Group report.

"This could be an example, not only of how to handle Iraq, but it could apply to immigration, Social Security and all those other things that have been hung up for so long," said Simpson. "That's what this last election said: Get serious and get your work done."

Avoiding commentary on the content of the ISG report, Broder declares the process that created it a success. He hopes Washington heeds Simpson's observation. Many would offer the same advice to our governor and legislators — reach consensus, get things done. That's disturbing in its simplicity.

"A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results," writes Eliot A. Cohen in the Wall Street Journal. Professor Cohen criticizes the ISG report in detail, but his underlying theme is this: An overwhelming mandate to produce a consensus document is no way to run a war, much less win one.

A mandate to produce consensus for its own sake is also no way to solve problems, much less run a state.

Gov. Pawlenty has said that perhaps the reason Republicans took an election drubbing is they didn't get the job done. More than a little truth there, but Pawlenty, a disciple of Maharishi McCain (Sen. John) and a pilgrim on the path of transcending politics, seems to be seeking Nirvana in a mantra of consensus. What is consented seems to be of secondary importance.

The serpent in Pawlenty's garden of good and evil, Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller, provided an interesting take on consensus on "Taxpayer's League Live with David Strom" (AM 1280 "The Patriot"). He said that with the significant DFL majority in the Senate, he anticipated more bipartisan consensus than in the past. Well, duh! Flogging will continue until morale improves, senator?

If achieving consensus is just the more powerful proposing and the less powerful conceding, heck, we're well on the way. Mere days after the election, Pawlenty was touting universal health care coverage, a health insurance mandate, a statewide smoking ban, banning prescription-drug ads and state monitoring of physician quality. Coming from a conservative Republican governor that's not consensus — that's surrender.

I'm not making an argument for the perfect at the expense of the good or for "stay the course" partisanship. The perfect doesn't exist (although ardent supporters of utopian universal health care and government-run retirement might differ), but everything less than perfect is not necessarily good. Although the perfect might be unattainable, we still ought to shoot for the good, not just the agreeable. And that's where Cohen has problems with the ISG report, and I have problems with the Kumbaya consensus attitude going into the legislative session.

"Consensus" is a means, not an end. Consensus is not a knee-jerk rush to some agreeable middle ground. The end, the objective, is figuring out the best possible way for the state to attack a specific problem. Sometimes that means, without sacrificing principle, the two parties reach beyond their established positions (hint, governor: they "transcend" not surrender) and create a third alternative that both can enthusiastically support.

A compromise that requires one party or the other to abandon its principles for the sake of "getting the job done" leaves that party bitter, dissatisfied and itching to re-fight the battle when it is stronger. That's exactly what happened to the DFL, which even the governor admits was bullied into submission in 2003. The 2003 budget fight left the DFL bitter, dissatisfied and now it's back, proposing to "fix" all the unfairness in the 2003 and subsequent Pawlenty budgets.

Instead of real reform in 2003, the governor and the Legislature compromised on budget cuts and financial gimmicks, but, God bless 'em, they got the job done and balanced the budget. Now it's 2007, and I'll bet my paycheck against pocket change that instead of reform from the DFL, we'll simply see the budget restored to "where it should be." This time Republicans will slink away, mutter and plot for the time when they again get to dictate "consensus."

That's no way to solve problems and no way to run a government. Consensus as the means to a beneficial end is a good thing. Mandating consensus as an end in itself is not. The latter accomplishes nothing good and likely something bad — a fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results.

Now, about that ISG report …