Just as in 1968, Minnesota is once again in the national political spotlight. Some 40 years ago, two prominent Minnesotans vied for the endorsement of their party to seek the presidency of the United States. Then, Vice President Hubert Humphrey represented the Democratic Party establishment. His challenger for the nomination, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, gave voice to “grassroots” activists animated by their opposition to the Vietnam War.
Today, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is viewed to be an establishment candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. He is up against Rep. Michele Bachmann, who draws enthusiastic support from the “grassroots” Tea Party movement. However, this establishment versus “grassroots” comparison represents the only similarity between these two internecine nomination battles.
In the 1960s, both Humphrey and McCarthy were leaders of national stature who shared credit for ushering in landmark legislation: the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. For his part, Humphrey was also the intellectual father of other historic laws – such as the Peace Corps, Food for Peace and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. McCarthy – not known for his propensity to seek media attention — instead developed his reputation in Congress for being thoughtful, articulate and, at times, independent. His decision to oppose the war came gradually and seems not to have been based on political calculus. McCarthy stepped forward to challenge his own party’s president, Lyndon Johnson — at a time when that effort seemed futile. In short, Humphrey and McCarthy were men of achievement and substance.
In the interest of full disclosure, I ran against Pawlenty for the governorship in 2002. Still, I believe any objective assessment of his record would conclude that his gubernatorial accomplishments are meager. He succeeded in holding the line on tax increases — a position that is always popular with the public. But his anti-tax mantra is belied by his tobacco “fee” and the ultimate effect his local-government-aid cuts had on property taxes.
Shifts and a stimulus
Pawlenty’s assertion that he “balanced” Minnesota’s budget also glosses over these facts: His budgets shifted school spending into the future and capitalized on the Obama stimulus (which he said he opposed). These artful gimmicks left his successor with a budget hole $2.5 billion deeper than it otherwise would have been. Thanks to Pawlenty, we now do have Vermillion State Park and a University of Minnesota-Rochester campus. But his other initiatives — Job-Z and Q-Comp for schools — have received unflattering reviews from our legislative auditor. Not a lot to brag about after eight years in office. Pawlenty certainly is no Hubert Humphrey.
During my years in Congress, I saw politicians of varying styles and effectiveness. Rep. Bachmann has established her role in Congress — and now her national reputation — as someone who seeks the media eye. Like the anti-war activists of the 1960s (who at that time represented only a faction of Democratic voters), her political base is limited — in her case to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. No one touts her legislative achievements — as there is little there to cite. Instead she is winning over activists by her willingness — even eagerness — to be an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama and his policies. In style and substance, Bachmann is no McCarthy — but she, like him, is banking on her political faction being motivated enough and, ultimately, large enough to help secure for her the nomination.
It may be instructive to remember that in 1968, neither Humphrey nor McCarthy made it to the White House. In addition, the personal animus between the two never healed. Will the outcome for Pawlenty and Bachmann in 2012 be any different?
That is my two cents.
Tim Penny was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1982 and represented Southeastern Minnesota’s First Congressional District through 1994. He ran for governor as the Independence Party candidate in 2002. He is currently the president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.