Slightly more than two months into the 2019 Minnesota legislative session it is becoming clearer that “One Minnesota” has morphed into “Won Minnesota” and that the DFL strategy to move its agenda is premised less on consensus than on the belief that it won the 2018 elections and its agenda deserves to be enacted. If that is the case then the DFL will get little of what it wants.
Tim Walz ran successfully on a “One Minnesota” slogan and platform. It was an effort to appeal to unity both during the DFL primary to bring together various parts of the party to support him, and to overcome polarization that grips the U.S. and Minnesota. It is unclear how much this message elected him and Democrats to take control of the House or whether it was the trickle-down effect from an unpopular President Trump, a weak GOP gubernatorial candidate, and a significant money advantage the DFL had. Yes, Walz won 54 percent of the statewide vote, but only 22 of 87 counties. He won the same places where Tina Smith, Amy Klobuchar, the other statewide DFL candidates and House candidates won. The state is geographically polarized.
Based on a majority vote, he claimed a mandate, as all victors do. He then appointed a Cabinet exclusively DFL and mostly Metro-centric. Since taking office he and the DFL-controlled Minnesota House have pursued a largely urban-liberal agenda, although there are strong elements that appeal to the suburbs. In many and most cases pursuing a “to the victor belongs the spoils” line or arguing that being in the majority means you get to move the agenda is perfectly acceptable in a political system premised upon majority rule. Yet in the case of the Walz administration there are several problems.
Narratives and messaging matter
First, even if the Walz-DFL agenda has elements that appeal to Republicans and rural Minnesota, it has failed to articulate that. It has failed to make the case to rural Minnesota how and why the gas tax, legalizing recreational marijuana or regulating guns are to their advantage. Narratives and messaging matter, and the Walz administration and the governor have done a bad job here.
Second, there seems to be a belief by Walz and the DFL that their issues are widely popular (and they maybe), fair, and correct, and therefore Republicans should simply do the right thing and go along with the DFL and vote for them. Maybe in a different era this might happen, but in the polarized “winner take all” or zero-sum-game politics of today that is not the reality. Simply having the right issues will not cut it.
Third, even in an era that was much less polarized, having the right issues was not enough. One had to do the heavy legislative work of building consensus, horse-trading, or developing coalitions to get the votes needed. Walz and the DFL are either not doing that, or not doing it effectively. Think about the recent defeat of legalized recreational marijuana in Minnesota. Walz seemed indignant that the Senate did not support it. At some point he and the DFL need to ask what is it the GOP needs to support it beyond just saying they should vote for it because polls indicate public support. The same crash of reality will soon hit when it comes to the ERA, guns, the gas tax, and a host of other DFL items.
The real art of legislating
One needs to ask what incentive the GOP has to support them and then figure out what deals are possible to be able to move closer to that. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka represents 35 GOP senators who have constituencies back home who do not necessarily support the DFL agenda. To get it through the Senate and secure GOP votes he and the other senators have to be able to tell their constituents what is in it for them. This is the real art of legislating, and so far this work or effort seems to be missing.
There are about two months to go in the 2019 legislative session. A lot can happen, and agreement on much legislation is still possible. But already we see how the DFL is losing on many issues, and may well get far less than it thought it would this year. Its strategy of “One Minnesota” may have changed to we “Won Minnesota,” thinking that straight majoritarianism would be enough to move a legislative agenda. However, with divided government and a political system that balances majority rule and minority rights, this approach is a recipe for failure.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”
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