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A Weak Hand

Minnesota government has been shut down for a week now.  The State’s budget runs on a fiscal year starting July 1st and there was no agreement on how to proceed.  So it ended there, all but the most essential services ordered to stay in operation by the courts.

How will this end?  What will it mean over the long haul?  It is still far too early to say anything for sure because it has yet to play out completely.  The Independence Day holiday has made reliable polling nearly impossible so far, so we can’t even use that measure.  In place of anything intelligent there is always spin.  I’ll add a little conjecture to that and you can judge me on it later.

Both sides are working feverishly to blame the other for the situation, running teevee commercials, opening new websites, and plastering billboards everywhere.  The operation of the state has been reduced to just another game.  And that’s where the long-term implications lie.

As a blame game neither side can really win.  The general public is not going to see this as political issue but primarily one of “You didn’t do your job”.  That will fall on both sides of the issue, but has a tendency to stick to Gov. Dayton because he is the most identifiable as an individual.  Faulting “The Republicans” is mushy and much more difficult.  The job of the DFL is to make sure that the public knows who Speaker Zellers and Majority Leader Koch are, in many cases introducing them while at the same time defaming them.  That will be hard.

The longer this goes on, however, the more that message can sink in.  As long as Gov. Dayton has continuous cover by proposing plans and encouraging non-partisan or bi-partisan groups to help make progress the more he will look like he is, indeed, doing his job.  So the quicker the settlement the better for the Republicans.

That is why I am sure that the final plan will almost certainly be a compromise, no matter how much the Republican legislature wants to stall the inevitable.  Tax increases of some kind will almost certainly fill in part of the $5B gap.

But a quick settlement would mean that the Republicans caved in, meaning that the entire shutdown has been for nothing.  That means that the Republicans lose as well.  Therefore they have set themselves up for a game that it is very unlikely that they can win – unless they successfully paint Gov Dayton as the problem.

That’s what they have been trying to do.  Their card remains the visibility of the Governor.  But with the public generally supporting tax increases, or at least seeing them as inevitable, their hand is very weak.  Gov. Dayton’s visibility can also work for him if he continues to appear to be the one who is working hard to craft a compromise.

We may see other angles tested, such as a suburban-urban conflict or a class struggle.  I do not expect that to go very far because of the increasing suburban poverty and thus reliance on state services – especially unemployment insurance checks.

You may or may not agree with my analysis of this situation, but this is more or less how the Federal shutdown in 1995 played out.  The more Newt Gingrich’s profile was raised the more he was able to take the fall.  It lasted just long enough to end his political career and give Bill Clinton an easy re-election.

Given that this is not a game the Republicans have a good chance of winning, why are they playing it?  The answer to this question is difficult because we have to get into their motives – a tricky thing to do at best.  However, stupid is stupid and their actions so far seem quite dumb.  This is almost certain to cost them the Legislature in the next election – unless the DFL is unable to capitalize on it.

So what can we make of the shutdown and how it will play out politically?  The longer it goes on the more likely we will see major Republican losses.  I don’t see any other reasonable conclusion, given that Gov. Dayton continues to make new proposals and is playing his role well.

We will see if this is correct when it has gone on long enough to have a few reliable polls.  I think we can expect that to take hold early next week.  Judge this analysis then and we’ll see where we are.

21 thoughts on “A Weak Hand

  1. Of COURSE I like your arguments and I hope you are correct…but people don’t always react logically.

  2. I think your analysis makes sense. But so does this one (it was posted on the MN e-democracy list):

    “Part of what came out from the Wisconsin piece was how folks from the old system simply didn’t know how to play the new game and as a result, got rolled. It feels very much like this same dynamic is playing out here in Minnesota, with Dayton being of the old system and the Republican House and Senate leadership being of the new system. Dayton keeps trying to find compromise with folks who simply will have nothing of it. In reading through the offers made in the last few days, none of the Republican proposals look like real compromises. Dayton looks like he is compromising and compromising without similar movement from the other side. This is baffling to someone from the old system because the new system folks simply don’t play by the same rules. It appears, in fact, that Dayton has compromised almost all of his core principles (shift more burden to the wealthiest, develop “real” solutions – not accounting gimmicks, preserve important government functions to help the neediest) while the Republicans have compromised on almost nothing (tax breaks for corporations, only a small amount of money). Is it because they are working from completely different belief systems? It would appear so. It would seem that the outcome, if this is true, that Dayton will continue to compromise while the Republicans won’t. And Dayton feels that he won because he worked to a solution while the Republicans will feel like they won because they gave up nothing. I hope this isn’t the outcome – but it feels like this is where it is going.”

    Dayton/his handlers seem pretty artful, but the DFLers, from Dayton on down, could do a LOT better at making their case. There is a certain offputting arrogance, and an incredible lack of outreach and grassroots organizing….where’s the doorknocking? Where are the phone calls…..? A really central conflict is playing out, one with strong implications for the future of the state, and–where’s the campaigning??

  3. Jack: Well, I’ve made my case. We’ll see, won’t we? 🙂

    Alan: I do agree with this – it’s really up to how well the DFL plays its hand out. Staying with the poker analogies, I consider the Republican campaign to be a “tell” – they know they are bluffing and are playing the bad hand the best they can. What I think is important is the basic rules of organizing laid down by Alinsky – “Pick the target, freeze it, personify it, polarize it.” The target(s) are Zellers and Koch – not “the Republicans” and not Tony Sutton. The DFL could still botch this because they play it badly, but so far the Governor himself is doing quite well. We will see – and I do expect this to drag on a long time.

  4. I hope you’re right about this.

    As for why they’re playing the game, a theory I’ve heard bounced around is that many drivers are freshmen legislators who have yet to learn the difference between campaign promises and actually governing. What’s your take on that?

  5. I disagree that the Republicans are getting their message out better because I think that it is counter productive. The more we hear the “blame game” I think the more people will fault those who play it. I think that their ads and billboards and all that will only backfire if this goes on for a long time because it proves that its all a game to them.

    The fact that this has become a game sickens me. People’s lives are at stake here.

  6. Meghan: I’m sure you are right. The Republicans have taken to liking “permanent minority” status in many ways. A big hunk of their media message is that they are victimized by the “liberal media” and inherent bias – a position that can never be mistaken for leadership. As long as they cast themselves as underdogs fighting against a DFL/liberal “establishment” they will see incentive to dig in and never retreat, a la Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. People in this mindset will never take seriously the give and take of actually governing. It’s all one continuous election. A very good point.

    Anna: That may well play out, and we’ll see. I’m not one to comment in part because I really don’t understand the “blame game” in the first place. I like to think that makes me more like an average voter. I think you’ve picked up on something that is very much worth watching and I really hope you are right on that – not just so that “my side” wins but because I would love to see that game end once and for all time!

  7. Hmmm..the MN wingnut Republicans don’t really seem to have a compelling central public personality out front. (Yes, they have Bachmann, but she’s doing something else.) But they do have a central idea or two–hate taxes, hate government, further enrich the rich….

    Dayton is presentable and credible but not particularly compelling.

    This really does feel more like a contest of ideas than personalities. that could be a good thing as the relative merits of the two sides are pretty clear.

    My gut feeling is that Dayton should ramp it up–increase rather than decrease his tax proposals, stop bidding against himself. Draw deeper lines in the sand….but I have very little besides feelings to base this on.

  8. Alan, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Should the Democrats portray themselves as competent managers of the system or as active progressives working for change? The last time I wrote about it this starkly was after the election:

    I generally come down on the side of being good managers first, but that is so boring that it does not capture anyone’s imagination. I also do not want to engage the Repubs in their games because their mission, turning people off from politics and getting them to stay home on election day, is very much the opposite of what Democrats have to do. Excitement is essential to a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) strategy no matter what I say.

    So you might well be right – this is the time to energize the base and get them ready for the next election. But … in the middle of a shutdown it’s really hard to make the case for government, given that there isn’t one! 🙂

  9. Hmmm one might say “government” is an abstraction with negative connotations–taxes, speeding tickets, young people getting mutilated in Iraq. (All of these things remain in place…?)

    On the other hand, the present festivities remind us that it’s also state parks, public health services ….. there might not be a better time to make that case.

    I had a call yesterday telling me that Polymet wants ten MPCA people brought back on line to work on their permits….

  10. I don’t think this will come down harder on one side or the other to be honest. I think the real question is whether people will be angry about this and remember it in 2012. Dayton won’t be up but everyone else will – doesn’t the Senate have to run in new districts? The anti-incumbent fever might strike pretty hard. So that would be against the Republicans but only because of timing. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “a pox on both their houses.”

  11. Interesting you should pick the Republican leadership as the targets. I’ve seen a number of things about Grover Norquist and I had to look up who he was. I have a lot of trouble blaming someone I’ve never heard of before who wasn’t elected to anything.

  12. Alan: Good point – “Gummint” is a dirty word, but individual parts of it remain very popular. That’s the sort of language we have to use.

    Jim: I think a lot of people will be with you on this. It is a matter of timing and how well this is remembered. The Republicans have an even weaker hand than I thought.

    Dale: Grover is a blue muppet. I have zero idea why people bring up Norquist in this context because his name isn’t going to do jack.

    • I would guess that all the Republican class of 2010 listens carefully to Grover Norquist – founder of Americans for Tax Reform, famous for this quote “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” and likely have singed the Phil Krinkie’s Tax Payer’s League of Minnesota’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge “I, ___________________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _________ district of the state of Minnesota and all the people of this state that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
      This makes compromise pretty difficult!

      • I’m not disagreeing with you overall, but now is not the time to take on Grover Norquist. If you want to demonize him you have to have more “gotcha” stuff – the way the Repubs make someone like Rev. Wright into a caricature. It takes a lot more effort and I think it’s too late to pin this on him. When this is personified it has to be someone immediate who the news can pick up. That’s all.

  13. Now on to something almost completely different. We now have more storms causing deforestation which could precipitate/catalyze more storms causing even more deforestation. Are we going to be reduced to bushes and scrublands and what are the implications?

  14. Thanks for a very interesting and optimistic post. I have been thinking that Gov. Dayton has the weak hand due to less willingness to play out this “game ” long term. The e-democracy- rules have changed link is one of the most insightful comments I have read. I have spent the last hour trying to come up with a good DFL strategy within this new framework but I am stumped. The public and even the dfl base is way too uninformed and apathetic to rally enough support to strengthen Gov. Dayton’s hand. I agree completely with this comment from Alan:

    “but the DFLers, from Dayton on down, could do a LOT better at making their case. There is a certain offputting arrogance, and an incredible lack of outreach and grassroots organizing….where’s the doorknocking? Where are the phone calls…..? A really central conflict is playing out, one with strong implications for the future of the state, and–where’s the campaigning??”

    The strategy of DFL legislators seems to be stay out of the fray. My own DFL rep described the impasse in a constituent email using quotation marks around Dayton’s position of defending against “drastic cuts.” Way to support the governor.

    My current hope is for the dems to at least lose this battle in a way that increases their chances in taking back the majority in 2012.

  15. Erik, Here is another idea for a future post (near f. I hope). This was an arguement for free trade in the 1690’s: ” The native staples of each country is the Riches of the Country. and is perpetual and never to be whooly consumed. The Buffalo of the Plains, the Pigeons of the Air, and the Cod of the Sea naturally increase. The minerals of the earth are inexhaustible. And if the the stock of wool and cotton be infinite so should the manufacture of clothing.” Now you may wonder where I am going with this and it seems in the future legislative sessions there will be attempts to rewrite the tax code and include more services (including fine clothing) under a consumption tax. Now a sumpturory tax likes this can cut in a least two ways if not more. And things are not as simple as they may seem. If these higher end services and products are taxed what will be their (taxes) effect be on consumption? It may result in a lesser use of these services or even a mild form of discrimination as it stretches it beyond the reach of ordinary mortals (think legal services etc. etc.)

  16. Laurie: I guess that as time goes on I have to agree with you. So let’s do a better job on our end here in the blog world and get done what we can.

  17. Laurie and Erik, now I believe in the pull of ideas. By the way google cat’s tug of war to see 3 cats tugging at a piece of steak and one is definitely getting the better of the two others while being less strong. Anyways you do not need phone calls, door knocking etc, at large but practised at the micro level. There are counties or seats where they are currently losing money due to the shutdown and where they have few or no individuals earning multimillion dollar salaries. Target those areas and keep chomping away like the little kitten who could.

  18. Pingback: Endgame – A Way Out | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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