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Republicans' factional duality on bright display at U of M panel

It will come as no surprise to many among MinnPost’s politically well-informed readership that members of the Republican Party, both nationally and in Minnesota, find themselves in an awkward, painful, dizzying dilemma.

They are coming off a particularly rough election cycle, in which they lost the presidency for the second consecutive time, suffered a net loss of seats in both houses of Congress, and, in Minnesota, lost control of both houses of the Legislature and saw the rejection of two constitutional amendments they had sponsored.

Polls suggest that the party’s “brand,” as we are all wont to call such things in this marketing-obsessed age, is drowning in a common household plumbing appliance that shall go nameless here. At both the rank-and-file and the leadership levels, the party is riven ‘tween two factions, one of which believes that a substantial portion of the party’s woes is that it is perceived as the uncompromising “party of NO,” and the other of which believes that the party’s deepest problem is that it doesn’t stick by its fundamental less-government, more-liberty principle.

This factional duality was on bright and somewhat poignant display yesternoon at the U of M’s Humphrey School for a forum titled “Which Future? The Minnesota Republican Party.”

Other than political scientist Larry Jacobs (of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance), who served as referee, the panel featured two Republican operatives, if that is the word I want here, each of whom represented one of the factions.

Cullen Sheehan
Cullen Sheehan

Cullen Sheehan is an experienced Republican insider. He managed the Norm Coleman Senate campaign of 2008, held the top Republican staff job when his party controlled the state Senate, and is now a registered lobbyist for the Minneapolis law firm of Lockridge, Grindal and Nauen.

Sheehan spoke Tuesday for the party establishment and he spake thus:

Politics is a cyclical business. Not long ago, when George W. Bush won two presidential elections in a row, his political mastermind Karl Rove claimed to have created a permanent Republican majority. He hadn’t, Sheehan noted, and the next two quadrennial cycles demonstrated that he hadn’t. Now, after two Democratic wins in a row, people are talking as if the Republicans will be in the wilderness for a generation. But, even in blue-leaning Minnesota, “all hope is not lost,” said Sheehan.

Don’t be the party of 'No'

The Republicans may not need much more than a paint job, said Sheehan, and maybe some flower boxes in the windows. Seriously, the quote was “tinkering with the outside,” not “tearing down the whole house.”

The key, he said, is communication. The public is leery of a party that wants to run the government but seems to dislike the idea of government.

“We have to find a way to communicate that we don’t think government is a bad thing and that we have ideas to make it better,” Sheehan said.

The public currently sees the Republicans as “the party of ‘No,’ ” Sheehan said. The public knows that Republicans want to say “no” to tax increases and abortion and gay marriage, and those are, of course, the party’s principles. Sheehan tried, throughout the panel yesterday, to suggest that the party needed to simultaneously stand by its principles and yet find a way to say something other than “no.”

“We have to understand that compromise is not a bad word,” he said. “We can’t just say ‘no’ and walk away. We have to have a seat at the table.”

If you’re trying to figure out what Republicans would say and do differently under Sheehan’s suggestions, you may have trouble with specifics. He said the party needs to be more “flexible” and more “inclusive.” He implied that Republicans are too quick to turn on candidates who may stray from party orthodoxy on any issue.

“When you are walking into a church, you don’t have to sign a declaration that you will agree with everything the preacher will say that day,” Sheehan said.

Challenging the right-left paradigm

While Sheehan believes that Republicans might have done better in 2012 if Mitt Romney had been a better communicator, his co-panelist believes the party would have done better if it had nominated Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

Marianne Stebbins
MinnPost/Brian Halliday
Marianne Stebbins

That panelist would be Marianne Stebbins of Excelsior. Stebbins and Sheehan go back to their days together in the Young Republican organizations. In 2008 and 2012, Stebbins worked for the Ron Paul presidential campaigns and in 2012 was Rep. Paul’s Minnesota chair. She currently holds the title of Minnesota coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, which is chaired by the now-retired Paul.

While Sheehan was all about what Republicans need to do to win future elections, Stebbins was all about liberty, a word that seemed to figure in most of her sentences and which she uses as virtually synonymous with less government.

The Republican Party claims to be the party of smaller government, but Stebbins expressed considerable skepticism on that point.

“A lot of people don’t see a difference between the parties,” Stebbins said. Those people, she said, see the Republicans and Democrats “fighting ferociously over negligible differences.” Republicans and Democrats stand in a vast football field of possible changes and “quibble over a single inch of turf. Republicans' idea of making the government smaller, Stebbins said several times, seems to be to make the government bigger at a slower pace than Democrats would.

When George W. Bush was president, government continued to grow, especially the national security state. Bush gave us the Iraq War, which was not only costly but was used as part of the argument for new attacks on civil liberties, such as warrantless wiretaps.

Republicans had a majority in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in 2011-12 and “we didn’t maintain our credibility as the party of smaller government.” Instead, she said, Republicans went along with a “socialized Vikings stadium. We “missed the opportunity to teach the public that less government can be a good thing.”

While Stebbins didn’t explicitly denounce the idea of bipartisan compromise that Sheehan was touting, she tried to stand his rhetoric on its head.

“We always compromise toward more” government and spending and taxes, Stebbins said. “Why can’t we compromise toward less?”

When Jacobs asked about the risk that the Ron Paul and Tea Party movements might run of pulling the Republican Party too far to the right, Stebbins replied: “I don’t agree with the whole right-left paradigm.” To her, the spectrum is about more government or more freedom.  When Minnesota Republicans decided to put the same-sex marriage ban and “voter ID” on the ballot, they sent the wrong message to voters who favor less government, more freedom issues, she said.

Is it all about winning?

 Sheehan didn’t say so explicitly, but his whole presentation was built around the assumption that a political party exists to win elections. Whatever good causes you stand for, you can’t advance them unless you hold office. Stebbins did say – explicitly – that her faction rejects that logic:

“Our goals are not necessarily to gain political power,” Stebbins said. “It’s to grow the liberty movement itself.”

“We’re not just focused on the next election,” Stebbins said. It’s more important that each campaign be “part of a long-term approach to educate people that they will live better when they live free. ... We will be better off with more liberty in our lives rather than always asking what else can the government give me today.”

Moving the primary

For most of the hour that they shared the stage, Sheehan and Stebbins found ways to disagree indirectly, although the tension between their differing approaches was palpable. Sheehan said many times that the kind of politically practical Republicans for whom he purportedly spoke share the basic values and policy positions of the “liberty” Republicans.

The two did disagree explicitly on two things. Sheehan favors the idea of moving Minnesota’s primaries to June, which he said would make the nominating process more “inclusive” by giving ordinary voters more influence, and the smaller but more committed group of caucus-goers less.

Stebbins, whose movement relies heavily on a highly motivated base, is against it. Ron Paul consistently did better in caucus-dominated states than in states that chose national delegates by primary. Stebbins said that a movement gets built by cultivating those kind of highly-motivated grass roots activists.

A system that emphasizes primaries just gives the advantage to those candidates who are most able to raise big money in New York and California to fund a TV advertising campaign, she said.

In recent history, the Republican Party has seldom unseated an endorsed candidate in a primary, and the party establishment has put a high value on maintaining the value of the endorsement. It’s time for a change, Sheehan said. “We shouldn’t ostracize candidates who want to take their case to the primary voters.”

A seat at the table

Sheehan illustrated his overall pitch about the importance of demonstrating to voters that Republicans know how to compromise with the example of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and the gun-control issue.

Stanek came up several times as Sheehan’s model. By expressing openness to some of President Obama’s ideas on gun issues he has gained a seat at the table when gun issues are discussed, and he communicates that Republicans know how to say something other than “no.”

Stebbins was unimpressed. Stanek, she said, has “lost a lot of respect out here” for doing that. The liberty movement of which she is a part doesn’t see much to like on the list of  Obama’s gun-control ideas, all of which would increase government’s power at the expense of individual’s Second Amendment rights. It’s fine to have a seat at the table, she said, as long as when you get to the table and bad ideas come up, you use your seat at the table to say “no.”

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Comments (30)

Where does one begin

With a movement able to repeat endlessly that less government means more liberty without having its collective head pop? Less government means, ultimately, anarchy in which concentrated private power establishes a certain liberty for a few and a brutish existence for the many, at least until the many sort out allegiances to the certain few and climb into the relatively liberty-rich status of feudal serfs.

Government (i.e., all of us acting collectively) advances liberty in three chief ways: providing for basic goods (a basic floor of education, housing, nutrition, health care) for all who keep their end of the social contract; moderating the non-meritocratic tilting of the playing field that is inescapable in a free market system; and managing collective resources (the commons). There should be a LOT of government in these areas, and very LITTLE government in many other areas (e.g., subsidizing and bearing risk on behalf of the select).

If we as adults aren't capable of differentiating between what we should do collectively and what we shouldn't (we aren't) then as a society we're done for (we are).

The third sphere

Critically, though, and I think this is the space where Libertarian rhetoric wiggles in to the national political discourse, there is a gap between "public" and "common." Public goods, the public market, and public resources are sometimes quite definitely not common (in the sense you mean by "the commons"). Public property, for example, is quite clearly NOT common property, sometimes to the determent of the common good (e.g. the restriction of public protests to permitted "free speech zones"). Libertarians perceive this crack in the wall as justification for shrinking the public sphere (i.e. government) to the benefit of the private sphere, however this is because we are largely missing a "third sphere." The automatic equation of "public good" with "common good" in political discourse permits the appearance that when and where the government fails, the only alternative lies in private goods and services.

Andrew, if I understand your reply,

I would say this: government operates poorly, in myriad ways that include things like restricting use of a commons in a way that does not comport with principles of (ordered) liberty. To an extent, government must operate suboptimally (the "bureaucratic failure" that mirrors "market failure" in any analysis of where along the public/private continuum a certain realm of economic activity is best located). But much of government's poor performance is, in theory, avoidable, caused by all sorts of things from the innocently petty to the massively corrupt. The most consequential corruption of government in all branches, at all levels is from the influence of concentrated private power, the same interest that benefits most from limited government.

So the answer to poor government is not no government (which is like taking the front door off of your house because the burglars keep picking the lock), but better government, which only can result from citizens being better-informed, more thoughtful, more morally sensitive, voting better and participating better. It's a profound challenge as cultural forces conspire to make citizens just the opposite, but it's the only tool the "common interest" has against an anarchy that naturally evolves into authoritarianism (which we have right now, much more than we realize). Libertarians can be very correct in identifying offenses to liberty "on the ground" but go 180 degrees in the wrong direction when they try to locate the causes of those offenses in political/economic systems, because they believe that "government" is an agent in its own right and do not even admit to the real-world phenomenon of concentrated private power.

If I've not understood your response, I apologize.

One clarification

Chuck, I mostly agree with you. I would only clarify that I wasn't trying to promote libertarianism at all, just hoping to explain its appeal (and perhaps co-opt it). I hope I didn't come across as a Ron Paul type, though, that is emphatically not the case.

Anarchy?

"Less government means, ultimately, anarchy" actually both Communism and Anarchy are based on more government control of the citizens, not less.

What?

That's just silly. It's somewhat forgivable to conflate Communism with historical socialist dictatorships headed by a nominally communist party (I would advise not to believe the Leninist/Stalinist hype, though), but how you got "more government" out of "anarchy" is beyond me. Anarchy, as a political ideology, is explicitly against the idea of the State (that's what the name means) in particular and hierarchical social relations in general. It is characterized by a rejection of all authority and all non-voluntary relations. I presume that you are relying on a formula of "Right = less government; Left = more government," which is demonstrably false (there are right-wing dictatorships too).

Shoes

Digging in your high heels and saying no even more isn't going to play well with the public. The reason Stebbins and the libertarians aren't trying to win office at the moment is they *can't* win office. They're too much of a fringe party.

So they're taking the tact of trying to grow their base. That will work to a certain extent while they attract more of the fringe element. But there reaches a point where they've sucked up all the angry white males in the area and then stall out. In order to make real progress, they'll have to appeal to middle voters. And those people tend to be turned off by the angry and simplistic rhetoric that libertarians employ: If saying no doesn't work, say no louder.

Sheehan is correct in that what goes around comes around. The Republicans may be out now, but that does not mean they will always be in the wilderness. They need to come to the table with ideas and an eye towards compromise as that's how democracy works. People don't get everything they want, but they do walk away with something.

So "liberty" is the next buzzword?

Stebbins confirms the feeling I get from the Paulbots. It's like she's been given marching orders to parrot the nihilist libertarian talking points. Whilst I agree with much of their foreign policy, their domestic and economic policy frightens me. Paul's fan base is devoted but small and you can see why. They're uncompromising extremists.

And is "liberty" the next conservative buzzword? Will they pollute and corrupt it the way they've done with "freedom?"

Freedom and Liberty

About a year or two ago, West Fargo, ND built two new elementary schools. One was named Liberty Elementary and the other Freedom Elementary.

Marianne Stebbins et al is a cancer in the GOP

Marianne Stebbins et al is a cancer in the GOP and literally and figuratively should be cut out of the GOP and return to the Libertarian Party where they came from!

She and her "Paulbots" are so naive that she doesn't intellectually understand that political parties are, in fact, all about winning. Her statement is laughable to both the DFL & GOP.

The DFL Overreach

Dayton and the DFL plan to tax the “poor, middle class, and the rich” will do more to unite the Republican Party and overcome the differences addressed between these two leaders.

The DFL overreach will continue as their “tax and spend “instincts will be fully manifested in the months to come.

The public will become aware that the Dayton “tax the rich” promise was nothing more than code words to inflict all Minnesotans with higher taxes. MinnPost and other “news” agencies will be able to provide some political cover for the broken Dayton promise but it will not be sufficient to fool the majority of the people in MN and thus unite the GOP.

And now...

Fox News returns you to your regular programming.

Never trust a zealot

While there are policy areas where I’m inclined toward the libertarian view, I’m not going to vote for any candidate who takes the kind of hard-line view of Ms. Stebbins. All any thoughtful person needs to do to see how “My way or the highway” works out in practice on a nation-state level is to cast a glance, however fleeting, at the modern Middle East. Many of those nations have governments far smaller, in terms of per-capita size, than ours, and yet are far more intrusive. And please, don’t mention those car-bombings and assassinations, all based on whether someone, or some faction, adheres to whatever the local orthodoxy happens to be.

Mr. Sheehan may be cynical, clothing right-wing cant in the lambswool of something more polite than Ms. Stebbins’ fanaticism, but it’s not the “paint job” of the current iteration of the Republican Party that has people voting against its candidates any more than the “paint job” of the DFL has people voting for its candidates.

Whether in 3-piece suit or 3-cornered hat, it’s not the delivery of candidates who call themselves “conservative” that’s driving people away at the voting booth, it’s the message itself. I agree with Sheehan that politics is cyclical, and the current DFL control in this state may well be temporary, but there will always be people suspecting – correctly, in my view – that cries for “smaller government” are primarily cries for economic policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, while simultaneously calling for social policies that are fundamentally hostile to democracy. That trend was made patently obvious in the most recent electoral cycle, with the Candidate of the One Percent running for the presidency, while the state Republican Party was doing its best to exclude as many people as possible from voting and the conventional society’s stereotype of marriage.

That these people are mostly well-intentioned and sincere (“mostly” because, after all, there’s Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, and so on ad nauseum) seems evident to me, but sincerity of belief has no relation to either democracy or ethics, and their policy proposals, taken at face value, are very nearly Medieval in their datedness and worship of the wealthy.

Mr. Gotzman please tell me when the Republicans

made real cuts in spending not delayed spending or shifted money. In general they talk the talk but don't walk the walk. They just spend on credit. Which will of course make their banking and investment constituents happy.

But neither party has demonstrated much leadership in the area of government spending and growth.

Both these folks are on the wrong track. Mr. Sheehan,is correct when he says that the Republican party is seen as the No party and as Ms. Stebbin's says they have squandered efforts on poorly thought out constitutional issues also true. Perhaps they are really being seen as the party of all style and no substance.

All style and no substance

All style and no substance. Well, that would be consistent with their notion that all their problems could be solved just by slapping on a new coat of paint!

Real cuts

The Republicans would make them if we let them.
They would cut Social Security, Medicare, and anything else that doesn't benefit the big money behind them.
And 'Liberty' is a loud noise that comes out of the trunks of certain pachyderms. It has little meaning, but serves to promote group cohesiveness.

Tax the poor

I am glad to here of your endorsement of taxing the poor, the really poor, and the really, really poor.

Politics happen in cycles

We are currently in a socialist phase that should be ending when the socialists run out of other people money and the ability to borrow or when the interest rates go back up. The stock market looks good now, because companies have less debt expense, making them more profitable, due to the government controlled interest rates, that also discourages people from investing in the once considered safe investments like CDs. As taxes and overall costs go up, inflation sneaks into the picture and people see their new worth decimated, they will seek out and vote for a different path. Poverty has already gone up under the Obama administration and purchasing power is going down quickly now. Both the stock market and debt market bubbles could accelerate change when they pop.

Socialism

Refers to national ownership of the means of production.
I don't see any evidence of it in the United States; even in Europe there are at best hybrid political systems. If we did have Socialism, there would be no stock market or corporations, so this post is self contradictory.

Socialism has phases and it evolves

Socialism has phases and degrees of national ownership, as well as control of the citizens freedoms. The Germans are Socialists, have a stock market and mixed private ownership, but the government has greater control of the citizens and businesses, than the US has had since its formation. US Democrats today would most likely be generalized as social democrats. Capitalism differs from both Marxism and Anarchy in terms of government control, not just business, but of the citizens and their rights. Business ownership is only a small part of the picture. Pure capitalism would leave the citizens to do what they want, as long as they didn't hurt anyone else. The government would work for the people, who would own and work at the businesses. The government would only do what was in everyone's best interest and would not play favorites. The more more powerful the government gets, the faster it decays. Curiously the founding father of this country figured that out hundreds of years ago and wrote the Constitution limiting the federal government and protecting the rights of the states and of course the Citizens. Its upside down already, as the power of government creeps up the scale.

Sorry Gary, capitalism is NOT a system of government

it's an ecomonic system where wealth accrues to individuals instead of to cooperatives or government entities. It is a system which, if China is any indication, works even better under totalitarian regimes than under democratic ones. Capitalism does not have ANYTHING to say about individual rights or responsibilities -- the only thing it promotes is the concentration of wealth among those who already possess it.

Who was

"the founding father of this country"?
You are correct to the extent that (fortunately) neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism has ever been tried in this world.
Again, look at the Articles of Confederation to see how a weak government constructed by and according to the founding fathers' principles actually worked, and how long it endured.

Confederation

We tried the whole business with strong state's rights and a weak federal government and...it didn't work. If we kept on that course there wouldn't be a United States of America at this point as the country would have devolved into ever smaller factions, each trying to protect its small portion of the pie. For a resounding example, take a look at the Civil War.

The 19th century was also punctuated by frequent recessions--what they called panics then--as one bubble after another grew and then burst. That cycle culminated in the Great Depression in 1929, which precipitated all kinds of new banking laws to prevent it from happening again. In other words, a stronger federal government.

Not to mention that in the 19th century many banks issued their own currency, which was a huge problem for people and businesses as they moved from one portion of the country to another. A bank in California may not accept the currency of a bank in Minnesota because they wouldn't know if the script was real or fake or if it would be honored when turned in. That's when the dollar that we know today came into being as the national currency to solve that problem.

The whole cry for state's rights just strikes me as yet another attempt to dismantle protections we've put in place. Protections for people, workers, the environment, and the finances of anyone who's not wealthy. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I just don't trust people who pound away at the state's rights pulpit as it doesn't seem to me that they're for the little guy in any way, shape, or form. The rich...well, they've got plenty of avenues to protect their wealth already.

So, Today's Repubicans Have the Choice

between the faction that believes that all they need to do is slap a new paint job and a new set of tires on the rusted out, 1980s-era Lincoln, Cadillac, Rolls Royce and Beamer - equivalent policy ideas and the public won't notice the tons of bondo beneath that paint,

nor realize that the breaks are shot, the transmission is on its last legs, the engine is beyond repair, and the radio only tunes in 50s easy listening stations through some kind of mystical time warp...

and the faction that wants to take us back to the wild, wild west before radio was even invented and where the man (or in a VERY few cases, woman) with the meanest attitude and the fastest draw with a six gun runs every town and village,...

and organized crime runs every city, county and state election,...

because they're too lacking in basic intelligence or forethought, and to ignorant of human nature to realize that the adult equivalent of "Lord of the Flies" is where their hair-brained ideas about "liberty" would take us.

It's almost like the Back to the Future movies where Faction One would dearly love to take us back to 1955 in order to set themselves in an alternate reality version of our present day where, they presume they would be totally in charge of everything and making money hand over fist,...

and Faction two would like to take us back to 1885 just because they'd have so much "liberty" back then - liberty to have their lives adversely effected and even to be gunned down by the likes of "Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen" if he felt like exercising his "right to keep and bear arms."

I'd say we let them have at each other, while the rest of us keep figuring out what needs to be done, right here in good old 2013 and the best ways to go about doing it.

If they're interested in having a seat at that table and providing creative, useful ideas...

(you know, ideas NOT designed as a smokescreen for the agenda they ALWAYS pursue: punishing the poor and stealing from the middle class in order to further enrich the rich), we'd be happy to have them there.

After all, the Democrats can't think up EVERYTHING. Other people's ideas, as long as they make practical sense and can be verified by factual evidence, and are designed according to the realities of the nature of HUMAN populations, (rather than the theoretical automatons contained in the mathematical economic models of Friedman, von Mises, and Hayek) are completely welcome.

Oh, and by the way, the general public has seen what seeking to become a "low tax" state gets us, and we're NOT buying that line of horse excrement, anymore, either.

It's really hard to see these

It's really hard to see these two views reconciled within the same party.

Beyond that, the "no compromise" approach is essentially anti-democratic and can only lead to irrelevance or dictatorship. In any event, it is a delusional approach by a fringe group.

Speaking different languages

The alliance between the two groups has always struck me as odd. The only explanation is that the two groups have managed to talk past each other, and each one is focused on something the other doesn't particularly care about. The social conservative wing gives lip-service to the idea of free market economics, but cares more about social issues. The libertarian wing is interested most deeply in economic matters, although they do give nods in the direction of personal liberty.

There is an inherent tension between the two groups that is only now coming to the fore. When the Republicans were winning elections, that tension was more subtle. After a string of electoral defeats, and the attendant blame-throwing ,expect to see it coming out into the open.

Right Wing

While a lot of people's experience with Ron Paul supporters is limited solely to they're experiences with Paulbots, I'm a little distressed at being painted as "extremists". Sure there are those elements in this group, just as there are in any other, but the extremist marking is due mostly to prejudice from the mainstream republican party and the media. There is a lot more common ground between democrats and libertarians than democrats and the mainstream Republican party. Libertarians were the primary force in the Republican party last year opposing the marriage amendment, and I heard quite a few oppose the ID requirement. They largely opposed the Iraq war, and excessive military spending. Yes, they support "limited government" but that includes limiting corporate bailouts, oil subsidies, and the like. Maybe there are irreconcilable ideological differences between libertarians and liberals, but I would like to think there is more room for compromise than presented by the mainstream Republican party. I know I'm going to get flamed for this, but take Kurt Bills, people have their own reasons to dislike him, but, he was the only Republican in the last election that I heard openly express willingness to compromise on raising taxes if it meant fixing the deficit, so why was he the right wing extremist of the party?

I'm sure

that this means something, and is relative to some part of this discussion, but I have no idea what ....

"Libertarian"--up to a point

The division in the party is reflected even in the personalities of each division's members. Consider Ron Paul, whose proposals appeal in certain ways to some who might otherwise be characterized as of the Left (end unnecessary foreign wars, legalize medical marijuana and stop the War on Drugs, etc.) but whose stance on social issues that involve personal "liberty" (abortion, gay rights) are hard-core "conservative."

As to the last two years in the Legislature, the Vikings aside, Chairman Sutton held a very tight whip hand over his party for most of that time (until things began to dissolve in the wake of the massive party debt he incurred and the scandal of the Tea Party-elected Amy Koch).

Hi, Don

This is basically the distinction between fiscal conservatism and social conservatism.
Ron Paul is mixed on the social dimension, but definitely conservative fiscally.