Trying to pin down Minnesota’s GOP Senate candidates on one real-life vote

Is compromise a dirty word, or a magic word? And how might your thoughts about that figure into whom you might want to represent you in the U.S. Senate?

I had interesting discussions of the potential benefits of compromise with two of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the in the Senate race, while a third continues to evade.

When someone asks Minnesotans for their vote and support for an office like senator, it’s important that they tell voters what policies they support and what they oppose. (At least that’s my excuse for giving one candidate in the current Minnesota race for Senate so much grief for doing a dance of the seven veils about his policy positions.)

But given the structural features of our particular system of government (with its many veto points) and the particular moment in which we are having this conversation (featuring polarization, hyper-partisanship and brinksmanship), it’s also worth trying to understand a candidate’s approach to compromise, versus the opposite of compromise.

Compromise might mean many things. Historically, it has sometimes meant splitting differences across partisan and ideological lines to avoid gridlock. In the current moment, many in the Tea Party and Liberty wings of the Republican Party believe passionately that compromise means we lose our liberties a little more slowly. I have some sympathy for that perspective. Not much, but some.

But in the current moment, the opposite of compromise means something resembling ideological total war across partisan lines and a repetitive game of chicken in which the parties announce that a government shutdown or a default on federal obligations is preferable to compromise.

McFadden reluctant to talk policy

Now back to planet Earth and to the 2014 race among Minnesota Republicans for the opportunity to run against Sen. Al Franken. The best-funded (by a factor of 10) candidate, businessman Mike McFadden, is not only the most unknown quantity policy-wise (since he has never held nor sought public office), but is also the most reluctant to talk about his policy positions. McFadden has also avoided, so far, the open-to-the-public debates that other candidates have attended. Every once in a while, McFadden discloses a position, but it is almost always a position that requires clarification that he then declines to provide.

Mike McFadden
McFadden for Senate
Mike McFadden

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed one of these. In an MPR piece, McFadden “said he would not have voted for the latest debt ceiling increase because it did not also cut spending.” It’s a sort of a position, but in the real world of what’s happening in Washington, it falls short of telling us what we need to know. (McFadden had said something similar, without mentioning how he might vote on anything, in an earlier interview with MinnPost’s Devin Henry.)

It’s not nothing to say that he would have voted “no” to raising the debt ceiling back in February. But there’s less there than meets the eye, if you think about how that last debt-ceiling increase came down.

Every single Senate Republican voted “no” on the final tally that allowed the government to continue selling bonds to pay for the spending that Congress had already appropriated. But a few Republican senators voted “aye” shortly beforehand to cut off a filibuster.

This was a fairly amazing spectacle. These Republicans voted yes, to allow the debt limit to come to a final passage vote (they could have blocked that by supporting Sen. Ted Cruz’ filibuster and they would have made their more militant constituents happy by doing so). But they then turned around and voted no on final passage. If we want to see the end of the repetitive game of chicken we could try to see this as an act of political courage. But they kinda undermined that theme by going to extraordinary lengths to disguise their identities.

(I‘m fairly surprised that more wasn’t made of this unprecedented act of courageous cowardice or cowardly courage. As Roll Call explained, the vote remained opened for a full hour as a small number of Republican senators changed from nay to aye on cloture. Normally, the Senate clerks call out the changes as they occur, but the clerks’ microphones were turned off and the clerks didn’t call out the names of the switchers specifically to make it harder for the press and public to know which senators had switched. The Democrats were in on it, too. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid said that it was done at the Republicans’ request but with the Democrats’ consent “to make it easier for Republican leaders to convince their members to switch their votes.” The identities of the switchers did eventually become known.)

OK, back to Minnesota. When I read that McFadden had taken the position that he wouldn’t have voted for the debt increase, he was merely in line with 100 percent of the Senate Republicans. The more difficult, more interesting question is what kind of role would a Republican senator from Minnesota play in a situation where voting no might have brought the country to the brink of what the hypsters like to call “default.”

So I emailed the McFadden campaign, stipulating that McFadden believed an increase in the debt ceiling should have been accompanied by spending cuts, to ask whether he would risk default to prevent a “clean” debt ceiling increase?

The first reply — not directly from the candidate, who has never spoken to me, but from his spokester Tom Erickson — was that McFadden would not respond to a question about a “hypothetical posed by yourself.” I hadn’t meant to be hypothetical. I was talking about what had just happened in the Senate. So I specified that the question referred to the unhypothetical, real situation of Feb. 12 when Senate  Republicans split between the hard-liner supporters of the Cruz filibuster and those who voted to allow the debt-ceiling hike to come to a vote in order to avoid coming too close to “default.” What would McFadden have done if he had been a senator that day? It’s been 10 days and I haven’t heard back.

Two other candidates

I began to wonder whether I was being somehow unfair or unreasonable. So I called two of his leading opponents, state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chaska and state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, both of whom were quite willing to explain how they saw themselves acting in a situation such as the one that arose in the Senate on the day of the microphone malfunction.

Julianne Ortman
Ortman for Senate
Julianne Ortman

For starters, Ortman and Abeler both denounced the efforts of those who changed their cloture votes to conceal their identities. Ortman said it was beyond unacceptable and if she had been in the Senate, she would have denounced the tactic right away.

Abeler called it “awful… You’ve gotta own your vote. The minute you start taking secret votes, you lose transparency and transparency is the only way to keep people honest.”

Abeler and Ortman both said that they, like McFadden, believe that the debt ceiling should not continue to be raised without either some spending cuts or some other measures that they both called “reform,” which I gather means changes in the budgeting process.

Ortman, who has chaired the state Senate Budget Committee, gave an example of what “reform” might look like. Federal agencies currently operate on a “use-it-or-lose-it” budgeting rule. If they don’t spend their whole budget, the remainder goes elsewhere. This gives agencies less incentive to even look for ways to save money. A change like that makes so much non-partisan sense to her, she would try to find some Democrats who see the value of changing that rule and try to build something like it into a package that including raising the debt ceiling.

Jim Abeler
Abeler for Senate
Jim Abeler

Abeler, who has rather famously broken party lines several times as a legislator, took a similar approach. You have to start early, he said, because by the time you reach the end of the process, after everyone has sworn that they won’t do this or that, there’s very little hope. You have to find some people in the other party’s caucus that “you don’t hate,” he said, and who don’t take the position “that a $17 trillion federal debt is no big deal. You have to find a way to talk about that.” Then you have to try to find some things that would help the overall goal of restraining the growth of government spending but that make sense to them and don’t require them to violate their fundamental principles. You try to create a little bipartisan cell that would have some leverage.

Ortman and Abeler both made a passionate case that they have the kind of skills and instincts that would enable them to create a space like that. Personally, I have no idea how possible that is in today’s climate, but it borders on sanity.

How Ortman and Abeler would vote

Nonetheless, I asked them both, if you had tried all that and it hadn’t worked, and it nonetheless came down to that day of the Cruz filibuster in the Senate, and the only choice was to vote for cloture and allow the Democrats to pass their “clean” debt ceiling, or vote no and run the risk of “default,” how would you have voted.

Ortman said if those were the only choices, she would have voted no. The country can’t just keep raising the debt ceiling and doing nothing to face the underlying problem.

Abeler said he might have voted no on that day because he didn’t believe the whole process had played out, and voting no might have provided a little more time to negotiate for a better set of choices. But if it reached that point where the only alternative was default, he would vote aye “because I’m sane.”

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/06/2014 - 08:50 am.

    Stick a fork in

    Jim Abeler. He doesn’t get it.

    Ortman’s still alive, however.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/06/2014 - 09:12 am.

    It’s clear that McFadden

    is standing on one platform plank and one only:
    ‘I’m not Al Franken’.
    The ultimate negative campaign.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/06/2014 - 09:28 am.

      McFadden has a second plank:

      “Look at all the money I’ve raised!”

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/06/2014 - 01:22 pm.

        Yet a 3rd plank…

        “I’ve made a lot of money, so that means I’m qualified to be a United States Senator.”

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/06/2014 - 02:26 pm.

          Wasn’t that

          Franken’s platform?

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 03/07/2014 - 09:03 am.

            No.

            Al had (and continues to have) a very deep and nuanced policy platform, on issues ranging from education to healthcare to economics to data privacy issues, and he worked very hard at becoming an expert on those issues, and then stuck his nose to the grindstone and didn’t self-aggrandize on cable news networks. Most demagogues aren’t aware of any of it, of course.

  3. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/06/2014 - 09:29 am.

    It’s funny how…

    … the deficit is projected to be back at a historically normal % to GDP this year and candidates can claim “nothing has been done” about spending.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/06/2014 - 02:50 pm.

      Notihng had to be

      A large part of the deficit was due to reduced revenues resulting from the Recession.
      Now that the economy is (slowly) recovering, revenues are rising and the deficit is falling as a result.
      The only thing that could foul it up is job killing tax cuts.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/06/2014 - 10:18 pm.

        Oh no!

        “The only thing that could foul it up is job killing tax cuts.”

        Just what the Governor, House, and Senate want to do.

  4. Submitted by David Broden on 03/06/2014 - 10:34 am.

    GOP Senate Candidates Fundamental Mistakes Continue

    As a long time GOP political wonk I am amazed at the avoidance of issues approach of the 2014 candidates for US Senate. This is the typical GOP aloof and arrogant view of expressing an opinion and connecting with the voters. MN voters want decision makers not a senator who speaks around the issues. The candidates must be for something and not only against all that is happening to continue the gridlock. A bit of time by each candidate looking back over past GOP statewide winners will shown that those that won were a) open minded; b)listened to and connected to voters not only the GOP core; c) had one or more strong messages of what they would do etc. As one who has shaped winning campaign strategies etc. this group fails campaign 101- back to school for a restart is recommended.

  5. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 03/06/2014 - 10:38 am.

    McFadden

    The only thing he has on his web site is a place to donate money. Anybody who is stupid enough to donate to a pig and a poke should remember the saying, “a sucker comes along every minute”. How does McFadden expect anyone to vote for him on the basis of I am not Franken. I have been a Republican for over 50 years and the fact the Franken did not embarrass MN is important because we still have Bachmann who has now decided to attack Jews. So I predict as predicted a couple of years ago after the state GOP shot themselves in the foot and continue to do so, That all of these candidates will go down in flames, except perhaps Abeler, simply because of his statement about the default. He is the only GOP legislator in the entire US who readily says he is sane. That is saying something since I think most of today’s legislators are insane, stupid or both.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/06/2014 - 11:40 am.

    No hypothetical Franken vote…

    The question – Is Franken going to campaign on his historic vote for Obamacare?

  7. Submitted by Tim Milner on 03/06/2014 - 12:47 pm.

    Tiresome

    McFadden’s goal is first to win the nod to be the Republican candidate in the general election. While I am sure that the questions Eric and others raise are very interesting, and ultimately important, they have nothing to do with winning the Republican endorsement. His step 1.

    What McFadden needs to do, and as best I can tell is doing so, is raise money and get the support of the key players in the party. He gains absolutely nothing by engaging in any debates, offering positions, making policy statements, etc that could damage any part of his standing in the party. At least right now.

    Like it or not – that’s the way to successfully becoming the nominee. Use last years failed attempts by Republican presidential candidates as an example. Did any of those myriad of debates really help get a Republican elected President? Or did it just provide fodder for the Democrats and other special interest groups once the real campaign started?

    We live in interesting times – when saying as little as possible means a better chance at winning. But that’s our new system. I don’t like it at all. But I can’t blame McFadden for playing the game the way it’s set up to gain the endorsement.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/06/2014 - 01:53 pm.

    Policy, schmolicy

    Actually, I think it’s Mr. Tester who doesn’t get it, but that’s for another time.

    Sean Olsen’s comments – both of them – seem on the mark. Mr. Abeler *does* seem the more sane of the McFadden alternatives, and if I had to vote Republican, he’s the one who would get my vote. We have plenty of evidence that ideological purity does not serve the public interest very well, and serving the public interest is, I believe, the whole point of the exercise of holding public office.

    Two things occur to me about Mike McFadden, aside from Sean Olsen’s first comment.

    One is that he genuinely has no clue about what position to take in a variety of real-world situations involving politics. After all, he’s never held or run for office before, and much of the agenda for a real senator is probably both new and different for him. The learning curve is, I expect, pretty steep, not only in terms of policy, but also in terms of mundane stuff like organizing staff, how much writing he might end up doing himself (very little, I expect), and other nuts-and-bolts stuff that are kind of important if he hopes to hit the ground running as a Franken replacement. Maybe “his people” are frantically working on policy positions even as we read and write these comments, but those positions are not yet polished enough for public consumption.

    The second is that he’s purposely avoiding taking positions as a tactic to defer or avoid media criticism. That would certainly explain the lack of response to Eric’s question(s). In the short term, there’s a certain logic to that, but “avoiding media criticism” when running for, or even holding, the office of U.S. Senator strikes me as an exercise in futility at best, and the reflection of a kind of Bachmann-esque paranoia at worst. Further, it should suggest to voters that this is a man who has no business in public office. Criticism, media and otherwise, goes with the territory of being in public office. If McFadden’s feeling are so tender that he can’t deal with criticism, he should return to the corporate board room, where he can play Medieval overlord to his heart’s content, and can fire people who criticize him.

  9. Submitted by David Broden on 03/06/2014 - 03:18 pm.

    Where is the Cart– In front or Behind the Candidate

    The comments regarding candidates first needing to raise money and also to get the GOP nomination is nonsense. Anyone who has developed winning campaign strategy knows that candidate views will trump the waffle approach and with solid moderate MN views the money will flow because of a vision of a possible winning approach. Certainly a candidate locked to the ideological view of some GOP need to stick to funds because they have no link to the real world of the electorate. There are a few moderate GOP candidates with problem solving and visionary government roles that state their views and do get the funds they need. Put the candidate first– good government first- then the voters will be interested –funds will flow and good politics without attack adds will follow. This is another lesson from Campaign 101– students please listen and of course discuss the alternatives if you wish to win.

    Dave Broden

  10. Submitted by jason myron on 03/06/2014 - 04:24 pm.

    The risk that McFaddon runs

    by avoiding taking any position is that others will define his positions for him. In this world, as unfair as it may be, perception is reality.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 03/09/2014 - 11:38 am.

      No, the only way any Republican has much of a chance against Al Franken is if they get through the Republican primary without completely alienating Democratic and 3rd party voters.

      So of the candidates dealt with here, only Abler and McFaddon have any real chance at becoming a US Senator. Abler, because he is ‘sane’ (arguable) and McFaddon, because no one can or will define him.

      I suspect that you could just cut and paste from the agenda of the US Chamber of Commerce website to define McFaddon, but it will never happen if he and his staff can create and spread a winning public persona for him by the general election.

      I suspect that McFaddon’s is a stealth campaign for the primary, designed to get through without losing any wing of MN Republicans, and his staff is focused on the two steps necessary for a statewide victory in MN: placating those in your own party with just enough comfortable rhetoric to win the primary and then fooling everybody else in the general to advance whatever the agenda is (see the USCC for it).

      Mr. Black and the rest of those in the news media should count on more of the same from McFadden until the general when the stonewalling turns to more Republican bald faced lies.

      It is a very curious election year as far as the US Senate race, but I don’t see any of these folks having much of a chance. Senator Al Franken has been good and effective for his causes and for Minnesota because both are one and the same.

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