Minnesota trumps Wisconsin polarization

Remember back a couple of decades ago when Wisconsin and Minnesota were regarded as models of good government?  When the pragmatic center used to prevail?

Today, Minnesota government is shut down for the second time in six years and Wisconsin is facing potentially paralyzing recall elections. In a political sense, it was not a very happy 4th of July in either state.

The reputations of both states for sensible government preceded the entry of really big money into the political game. Those major dollars hardened the edge of wedge politics. Legislators and governors used to be able to compromise, because their political IOUs were not big enough to override their good judgment in the midst of cutting a deal.

But when donors pour hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, into campaigns, they want a return on investment and hold the elected politicians completely accountable. No deviations from the party line are tolerated.

The politicians in both states finally ran out of money and borrowing power, so they had to face the music of multi-billion dollar deficits. There was no easy way out.

The Minnesota meltdown was the result of an ideological standoff between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, whose central theme was to raise taxes on the state’s 7700 millionaires, and the Republican legislative leaders, whose party line was no new taxes and a sole reliance on  spending cuts.

The Republicans, who threw in a laundry list of socially conservative, non-monetary issues into the budget at the 11th hour, booed and hissed the governor Friday as all sides headed out for the holiday and a cooling off period.

Dayton laid off 22,000 state employees Friday in what are regarded as non-critical functions, like parks, driver tests and tax audits. Both sides will try to make points by blaming the other for the collapse of government.

Minnesotans are frustrated, angry, and incredulous that their leaders could prove so non-pragmatic, so uncompromising. Most just shake their heads.

Wisconsin’s political collision didn’t shut down the government, but it did derail the legislative process when 13 Democratic senators decamped to Illinois in protest of the GOP budget. Republicans controlled both houses and the governor’s mansion, so the budget got done. And it is ostensibly balanced.

But the backlash will be severe.  Nine recall elections are on deck this summer, and labor chiefs, who suffered an unconditional defeat in losing collective bargaining for public unions, will surely lead a recall campaign against Gov. Scott Walker in early 2012.

If the Democrats win either house or the governor’s mansion over the 16 months, Wisconsin could see a Minnesota-style standoff as well. It could be more than standard gridlock.

The partisanship has become so extreme in both states, and elections so close that recounts are now routine, that problem-solving politics seems a permanently lost art. For instance, neither party in either state adopted the proven health cost reforms that have saved big money in the private sector and could have eased the deficit crunch.

Lost in the process in the two states has been the largest block of voters, the independents in the middle who account for 40% of votes cast. They were left marginalized by the big money on the right and left and by primary systems that make it impossible for moderates to make it to the general ballot.

It there were an open primary, where the top two votes getters went to the general ballot, the extremists would have a hard time winning a primary.

Because of court decisions, it looks like the big money is here to stay in American politics. But the primary system could be fixed to handicap the extremists in the minority and to reward centrists in the majority.

Electoral reform looks necessary.

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