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Lessons learned in Minnesota: Republicans should shutdown the shutdown

The same dynamic will play out for the Republicans nationally in 2013 as it did for Republicans in the Minnesota shutdown in 2011.  

While the Minnesota shutdown lasted for 20 days, the rhetorical fight between the two sides lasted the entire 2011 legislative session.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

In 2011, the longest state government shutdown in the history of Minnesota happened, lasting 20 days. Republican majorities in both the Minnesota Senate and House faced off against Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. Minnesota’s Constitution requires state government to have a balanced budget and the results from 2010 elections pitted two ideologically opposed groups of politicians against each other. Both sides were legally elected and both could claim the mantle of an electoral mandate. In the fight to balance Minnesota’s budget, the battle lines were clearly drawn: Gov. Dayton wanted a more balanced and fairer tax system, which included raising taxes. Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes and wanted government spending to be maintained at current levels.

While the shutdown lasted for 20 days, the rhetorical fight between the two sides lasted the entire 2011 legislative session. When the shutdown ended, Republicans were quick to claim victory – in retrospect, maybe too soon. But many Republicans were unhappy, because although taxes were not raised, government spending did increase. Perfect became the enemy of great and Republicans continued to fight amongst themselves about who actually won the shutdown battle. Taxes weren’t increased, but this simply wasn’t good enough for some Republican elected officials and activists. Republicans went into the 2011 government shutdown with different definitions of what a victory or win would be and when the shutdown ended, there was widespread animosity between Republicans.

Gov. Dayton could use his bully pulpit and spend the next months messaging on the damaging impacts of the Republican budget. He could speak with one voice, while Republicans were splintered, fighting over spreadsheets. Ultimately, many of the Republicans who were upset about the outcome of the 2011 shutdown were voted out of office and Gov. Dayton eventually was able to get the budget he wanted, with a newly elected DFL majority in the Minnesota Legislature. So who really won the 2011 Minnesota state government shutdown? I think you know the answer.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see the same dynamic playing out for the Republicans nationally in 2013 as it did for Republicans in Minnesota in 2011.

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The three Republican members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation couldn’t even agree on if there was a government “shutdown” or a government “slowdown.” Congresswoman Bachmann wasn’t calling it a government “shutdown,” she was calling it a government “slowdown” in a statement released by her office. Congressman Paulsen called it a “shutdown” in a statement released from his office, as did Congressman John Kline. Polling shows American voters strongly oppose the GOP strategy on Obamacare and Congressman Paulsen’s comments that he will “look at anything” to end the shutdown are very wise.

The Secretary of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Chris Fields, then added to the messaging mess by comparing Obamacare to Jim Crow laws, which were laws requiring racial segregation. Fields multiplied his messaging mess by attempting to explain his hyperbolic statements to City Pages. Fields could have worked off the messaging points in the press release from the Republican Party of Minnesota, but they didn’t send out a press release. The Minnesota DFL Party sent out a press release today, providing direct messaging to the media and their activists.

The messaging opportunity missed by Republicans yesterday was the overall implementation of Obamacare, but this was overshadowed by the government shutdown. Republicans and critics of Obamacare could have focused on the weaknesses and problems of the enactment, but the government shutdown took this opportunity away. The competing factions within the Republican Party stepped on the messaging of the other, preventing a cohesive and winning message. If the three Republican members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation can’t agree on using government “shutdown” vs. “slowdown,” how do Republicans think they’ll win the messaging and the overall battle over the enactment of Obamacare? They won’t, and the longer this shutdown continues, the more it will hurt Republicans.

The problem for Republicans is the elected officials and activists that are celebrating the government shutdown, because to them, they have already won, as the federal government has shut down. Former State Senator and candidate for Congress Gretchen Hoffman tweeted on Monday evening that she had her “party hat” and “noise makers” ready for government shutdown party. Nothing short of President Barack Obama having a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House and announcing he will support the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare will appease this faction of the Republican Party. This will never happen, therefore a definable victory for Republicans is unobtainable.

President Obama has the largest bully pulpit in this battle (like Gov. Dayton in Minnesota) and Republicans are not going to win over the American people by going to the floor of the U.S. Senate and reading “Green Eggs and Ham.” While Republicans are reading books from Dr. Seuss and using “slowdown” instead of “shutdown,” President Obama can speak with one voice and overpower the messaging factions within the Republican Party. Republicans can’t agree on what will define a win to end the government shutdown, so how can they ever win?

The smartest move for the Republican Party now would be to end the government shutdown and get back to work doing the work of the American people. Elections have consequences and both Republicans and Democrats need to understand this reality. The best visual for Republicans is for the American people to see them working on alternatives to Obamacare, with a federal government that is open. The problem is that a vocal and powerful minority inside the Republican Party is already claiming victory because the federal government is shut down. The federal government will re-open again, likely with the bulk of Obamacare still intact and funded. The Republican Party is setting up the Republican Party to fail. The lessons of Minnesota’s government shutdown of 2011 should be clear and Republicans nationally would be well served to shutdown the shutdown.

Finally, let me conclude by writing that who loses the most in a state or federal government shutdown are citizens, young and old. Those who simply want to visit a national monument or a state park will be disappointed, a veteran may face a delay getting a disability claim processed, and patients may not be added to clinical trials for new cancer treatments. The list goes on and on and the longer this shutdown lasts, the worse it will get and all the bedtime stories read on the floor of the U.S. Senate won’t make it any better.

This post was written by Michael Brodkorb and originally published on politics.mn – an inside view of Minnesota politics. Follow politics.mn on Twitter: @politicsdotmn.

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