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Vin Weber: Dems and Repubs may be able to strike a few deals

With just about everyone on board that nasty-year-ahead bandwagon, Vin Weber says he’s a bit more optimistic that Dems and Repubs will find a way to coexist — and maybe even strike a deal on big money questions about the long-term debt and deficit.

Vin Weber
Vin Weber

A couple of months ago, in a talk as the Humphrey Institute, Minnesotan and Repub bigfoot Vin Weber speculated — fairly shrewdly as things turned out — about how the rest of the election season would go. But at the time, he said the Repub takeover of the House would lead to a nasty 2011 in Washington.

Now, with just about everyone on board that nasty-year-ahead bandwagon, Weber says he’s a bit more optimistic that Dems and Repubs will find a way to coexist next year, and maybe even strike a few deals, especially on the big money questions about the long-term debt and deficit.

Weber, for any newcomers in the audience, is a Slayton, Minn., boy who came up in the Rudy Boschwitz organization, served six terms  in Congress (1980-92) as a loyal Reaganite, then transitioned into the  lobbying biz with Clark & Weinstock, which has been very good to him. He maintains a public service portfolio, currently featuring the chairmanship of the National Endowment for Democracy. He stays very active in Minnesota politics and spent Election Night upstairs with the Emmer campaign. He was scheduled to give his post-election  analysis at the Humphrey Wednesday morning but had to cancel to attend a funeral, so I called him Thursday to ask what he would have said.

The victorious Repubs received at least two messages from the electorate on Tuesday, Weber said. One message, the angry one, will lead to partisan fighting, an air of gridlock, a marquee vote to repeal the big health care bill, Weber said.

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“But it would be a mistake to think that nobody in Washington has heard the other message, that the public is really sick of gridlock and hyper-partisanship. I know that the incoming leadership is very aware of that part of the message and that’s why I just don’t believe the Apocalypse Now scenario. I believe they will accomplish some things, maybe some fairly big important things, while — yes — fighting over the other things.”

One big key to watch, if you want to know whether the next two years will be about gridlock or painful progress, will be the report of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission (technically, the National Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform), and how seriously it is received. Weber has friends on the commission and has followed its work closely.

“I have a glimmer of hope that they’ll come up with a bipartisan approach to the long term spending and taxing and deficit issue,” Weber said. “I know they are taking their work very seriously. They really believe they are the last chance to prevent us from becoming Greece.”

I gather Greece is shorthand for a country that brought about its own ruin by failing to deal with deficit and debt.

(Personal aside: I’m a deficit/debt hawk myself. I know how successfully Repubs hit the out-of-control-spending theme in their recent triumph. But I’ve been underwhelmed at how few in Washington — including the Repubs who rail against the deficit all the time — are willing to specify the kind of pain that will be necessary to steadily reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. But, like Weber, I’m hopeful that in the few minutes between the last election the next campaign, a few leaders will summon the courage and the bipartisanship necessary.)

Weber is more optimistic. He says the political class has “conditioned the political environment to deal with these issues.” (I’m skeptical but I hope he’s right.) Of the big spending areas, he said, Social Security is the easiest because everyone knows the menu of possible changes in the tax-and-benefit formuli that will extend the solvency of the program. Health care is tougher because there are differences of opinion on what would slow the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and health care in general.

If the overall debt reduction goals are to be accomplished, Weber said, “Republicans will have to give up on their opposition to any net increase in taxes” and Democrats will have to give up things that are important to them under the concept of “equity,” and try to structure a tax reform package that will involve tax hikes, but that Repubs can accept as “pro-growth.”

The commission’s package will also address the other big money category: military spending. Weber says there are more Repubs that you might realize who are willing to try to cut unnecessary military spending, and the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is a Republican — is part of that group, may help. The trouble with this area is that events in the world can suddenly change everyone’s attitude, so the long-term savings in this area are never really reliable.

I shouldn’t overstate how confident Weber was that there will be some kind of megadeal on taxing and spending, but given the general tone of the moment (see yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece headlined “McConnell: No Mood for Compromise”), Weber’s take was a contrarian note of optimism. Let’s reread this post in one year.

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The Emmer race

In the Minnesota political scene, Weber subscribes to a few of the analysis points that you’ve heard elsewhere.

Weber endorsed and assisted Tom Emmer before the Repub convention. The campaign never completely recovered from a terrible first month or two after Emmer got the Republican endorsement. (This period is symbolized by the silliness over tip credits and how much waiters and waitresses make.)

After Cullen Sheehan took over as campaign manager in early August, things straightened out and Emmer “ran the campaign he needed to run,” Weber said. He also mentioned that the “Target mess” (when Target Corp. got hit with a backlash after contributing big indirect bucks to Emmer) inhibited the business community’s willingness to get fully behind Emmer.

Weber noted, as many have earlier, that polling showed that the big enthusiasm gap that was helping Republicans nationally was much smaller in Minnesota. One reason for that, he suggested, was that the enthusiasm gap was fueled by anger at incumbents. In Minnesota, there was no incumbent Democratic senator on the ballot to focus that portion of the anger that was about national Democrats. The Minnesota governorship had been in Republican hands for eight years, so to the degree that anti-incumbency was the key, it probably hurt Emmer as a proxy for Pawlenty.

(If you buy this last incumbency point, it might help explain why the Repubs did so much better in legislative races than in the guv race.)

Weber said he hasn’t seen enough exit polling to decide whether he believes Tom Horner took more votes from Emmer than from Mark Dayton. But the support of moderate Republicans and some business leaders for Horner probably did contribute to a perception of Emmer as a righty extremist, which didn’t help him, Weber said.

As for the prospects of Dayton working with the new Repub majorities in the Legislature, Weber was pessimistic, and laid the blame on Dayton for running what Weber called “a campaign of shameless class warfare.” (In an aside, Weber noted that the class against which Dayton waged war was Dayton’s own class.)  

Dayton, he said “doesn’t have any relationships on the Republican side” and his tax-the-rich campaign mantra “leaves him with no basis to deal with the Republicans in the Legislature.”