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Back to the future: State’s history holds key to elusive ‘post-partisan’ politics

By Dan Haugen | Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008
Minnesota long was considered “the very finest laboratory of democracy,” according to think tank president Dane Smith.

It’s one of this election season’s political buzzwords: post-partisan.

The phrase has been used by bloggers and big media alike to describe candidates who seem to transcend traditional party politics.

Some of the politicians frequently tagged with the label are Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Esquire magazine, for example, went so far as to put Schwarzenegger on its March cover, arguing that his administration offers a “glimpse of what a post-partisan presidency might look like.”

Past progressive Republicans ‘pre’partisan’
If these new leaders represent an era of “post-partisan” cooperation, then the progressive Republicans of Minnesota’s past might be considered “pre-partisan,” said Dane Smith, president of the Growth & Justice nonpartisan think tank.

With the Republican National Convention in town, Growth and Justice hosted a symposium today focusing on Minnesota’s progressive Republican tradition.

“Minnesota was considered the very finest laboratory of democracy,” Smith told the crowd. Although Democrats often are credited with making Minnesota “the State That Works,” Smith said moderate and progressive Republicans also played an important role in furthering that reputation.

Minnesota Republicans helped pass some of the most important improvements in the state’s history: protecting the environment, investing in education, reforming mental institution reforms and advancing civil rights.

Today’s program featured three of the state’s most influential Republian leaders of recent times: former governors Arne Carlson and Al Quie and U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who is retiring this year.

The tax-cutting, religious, conservative Republicans who control the state party today are a dramatic departure from the conservatives of the past, Smith said. That was a time when politics was about being, as he described in his introduction of Quie, “a fiscal conservative with a heart.”

Elmer L. Andersen captured the essence in a single quote, Ramstad said: “People need to do what they can for themselves. But government should do things for people that they cannot do, or cannot do as well.”

Quie said he could summarize that philosophy in three words: “Think, listen, love.”

Ramstad salutes mentors Carlson, Quie
Ramstad, who is among the nation’s best-known advocates for mental health and addiction treatment, said he was honored to share the forum with two of his mentors.

He’s proud to be consistently rated one of the most centrist members of Congress. And to have been endorsed by interests as diverse as the Chambers of Commerce and the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club.

“The Progressive Republican approach has always been to reach across the aisle and work with both parties to get things done,” Ramstad said.

He said he wouldn’t win any popularity contests with today’s House Republican caucus. That wasn’t always the case, however. Bipartisanship, he said, eroded during his 18 years there and worsened further under President Bush.

“Instead of being a uniter, he followed Karl Rove’s playbook too often.”

The panel sounded pessimistic about whether Minnesota and the nation will ever see a return to a more cooperative time.

But Smith said there appears to be creeping support for candidates who see beyond their own party.

“All the polling and focus groups are showing these leaders that this is what people want,” he said.. “It’s really building: this idea that we have to get past the deadlock and gridlock and come up with solutions.”

Carlson talked about several issues that he believes neither party is honestly addressing, including the federal deficit, global warming and foreign policy.

“America is going through what I would argue is a period of escapism,” Carlson said. “We’re more concerned with Paris Hilton than the problems of our deficits.”

While Republicans characterize Democrats as “tax-and-spend,” Carlson criticized Republicans for adhering to a borrow-and-spend ethos instead. The national debt has skyrocketed from less than $1 trillion when President Jimmy Carter left office to about $9.5 trillion today.

On the decifit, he said, “We’re kind of like Norm — in ‘Cheers.’ Put it on the cuff.”