The inability of U.S. House Republicans to come up with a new leader looks like a historic case of political slapstick.
Yet, Minnesota politicians can’t help but have at least a degree of empathy as they watch the D.C. Republican pols tear each other apart. The simple fact is, be it Democrats or Republicans, getting along with the people on your own team is among the most delicate pieces of business in politics.
At least in recent Minnesota history, there haven’t been any insurrections quite so bloody as what’s happening in D.C. But as recently as this summer, a group of DFLers pushed to dump Senate majority leader Tom Bakk at the conclusion of the special session.
The would-be rebels were mostly made up of metro-area DFL senators who were angry at some of the deals that Bakk had made with Republicans, who make up the majority in the House. Most of the anger simmered around environmental issues.
“They took Tom to the woodshed,’’ said Steve Sviggum, a former GOP House Speaker. “He survived but my biggest concern is what he had to commit to the people on the left in order to hold on to his position. I don’t think we’ll know the answer to that until sometime in the future.’’
Bakk isn’t the only one who has been “taken to the woodshed’‘ in the last couple of decades. When former Senate majority leader Amy Koch had personal issues, she was taken out by a coup led by the self-righteous (and ambitious) of her own party. Irv Anderson, a DFL tyrant of the 1990s, was finally deposed by House DFLers. Dee Long, a DFL House Speaker, was the victim of a petty phone scandal not of her making. The list goes on and on.
Not surprisingly, Bakk did not return a phone call to talk about his situation and if he sees a correlation between his caucus and the family feud going on in Washington. And his supporters, including Sen. Terri Bonoff, a moderate DFLer from Minnetonka, don’t seem interested in any more discussion of the internal workings of the caucus, either. The attitude seems to be what goes on in the family should stay in the family.
Overthrowing the institution
Bonoff does say there’s a huge difference between what happens when there’s intra-party feuding in Minnesota and what is happening in Washington.
“I think what historically has happened here is that even extremists respect the institution and the history of the institution,’’ Bonoff said. “In Washington, the extremists are trying to overthrow the institution.’’
Until there is real re-districting in the country, a handful of former and current state politicians said, it’s hard to imagine there will be significant behavioral changes in Washington. The huge number of absolutely safe seats mean that people from the extremes of left and right will continue to be elected.
Those coming from safe seats only have to worry about being outflanked from the left or the right.
“If you look at Minnesota,’’ said Sviggum, who was Speaker from 1998 to 2006, “there are 134 House districts. Of those, 80 are probably safe for either Republicans or Democrats. So what do you have? Phyllis Kahn (a DFL rep from Minneapolis since 1972) will never get beaten by a Republican. When she gets challenged, it’s from somebody who’s left of where she is.’’
The same thing happens to Republicans in safe seats. They don’t have to worry about DFLers, but they have to be very concerned about being targeted by the party activists if they aren’t “conservative enough.’’
(Personal aside: There’s a hard-working, moderate Republican state representative from rural Minnesota who once said to me, “please, never call me a moderate in print. That would destroy me.” He was serious.)
In Washington, it is that handful of 30 or 40 extremists — in this case from the right — who have brought down House leadership and are threatening to shut down government. In almost all cases, they have no concern about having to go home and face consequences from voters.
“You simply can’t govern from either extreme,’’ said Sviggum. “I never thought I was elected to shut down government. You compromise and you get what you can get.’’
This is not always popular with party activists, Sviggum said. In his case, the biggest challenges he got were from talk radio hosts. “They’d say I was conservative, but I wasn’t conservative enough.’’
Internally, though, Sviggum’s years as Speaker were pretty tranquil within his own caucus. The one time teacher constantly did “preach team.’’ He said he’d tell his members, “You’re not going to get everything you want, but we want to work together so that everyone can have success.’’
Hmmm. Wonder how that sort of down-home pep talk would play with the current tea party set?
Leading a flock of pols at any level of government never has been easy. Only self-confident people, typically extroverted, run for office in the first place. These aren’t people who are used to being followers. Start mixing in some younger lawmakers — who don’t think they should have to wait years of seniority before your voice can be heard — and toss in talk radio and social media, and it’s difficult for anybody to be a leader.
The book of Irv
Once upon a time, the Minnesota House was ruled by Irv Anderson, a good old-fashioned DFL political thumper from International Falls. Anderson was the Speaker from 1993 to 1997.
“Irv’s style was very simple,’’ recalled former DFL House member Mindy Greiling. “You were either for him or against him. If he thought you were against him you were dead meat. You weren’t going to get any good committee assignments, any bills you wanted to bring forward weren’t going anywhere.’’
Few DFLers liked Anderson. But most of them feared him. And those who wanted to become committee chairs or have a voice would bend to Anderson’s wishes. But, as the power of women and the suburbs grew, Anderson’s ability to control with an iron fist slowly was weakened. Finally, an “anybody but Irv’’ campaign within the DFL caucus led to his demise in 1997.
“Funny thing about Irv,’’ said Greiling, “is that when you first met him, you thought to yourself, ‘he seems like a nice enough old man.’ But once you crossed him, even on what would seem like a small thing, that was it. You were finished in his mind.’’
Greiling said she’s thought a lot about Anderson and his style in recent weeks as she’s watched the saga play out in Washington.
“Boehner is a different cat completely than Irv,’’ Greiling said. “It seems to me like he’s done everything he can to placate that one group of extremists. But there’s nothing he can do. He can’t punish them. He can’t cajole them. There’s nothing he can do.’’
As a Democrat, Greiling said, she’d find all of this amusing, if the consequences weren’t so dire.
“When there’s a leadership battle going on, nothing can get done,’’ she said.
‘Dear Lord, I don’t want things to end today’
Dean Johnson, now a member of the board of regents, has seen political leadership from just about all points of view. He was a Senate minority leader as a Republican, and a Senate majority leader as a DFLer. He was too liberal for most Republican tastes, absurdly moderate in the minds of many DFLers.
As a DFL majority leader, he remembers looking at a schedule that would show him having a morning meeting with Iron Rangers followed by a meeting with women’s progressives. How does a leader handle these disparate groups he’s supposed to lead?
“I would say a prayer,’’ said Johnson, who also is a Lutheran minister. “I would say, ‘Dear Lord, I don’t want things to end today.’’’ As a leader, Johnson said, “You’re always skating on thin ice.’’
What do you do? Sometimes, Johnson said, there’s nothing to do but leave things in the hands of your caucus and walk away.
“I can’t remember what the issue was, but at one time I was in difficulty with my caucus,’’ Johnson said. “I went to a caucus meeting and said, ‘I understand some of you are not happy. Here’s what we do. You talk things over. I’m leaving.’ I left, went to my office and was there for about 15 minutes and somebody came to my office and said, ‘Dean, come back.’ I said, ‘You sure?’ They said, ‘Yeah, it’s time to come back.’’’
Obviously that’s not been happening in D.C.
Not forgiving or forgetting
Sviggum, a Republican, is frustrated by what he sees, frustrated by what politics has become. He seriously considered making a bid for the seat Rep. John Kline is leaving. But, in talking to friends from both sides of the aisle, he finally decided against it when he was told that House members spend more than 40 percent of their time raising money for the next campaign. “Dialing for dollars is not for me,’’ Sviggum said.
So he’ll look at the problems from a distance — and hope for the best. He’s upset that Democrats don’t take more heat for being un-compromising. “They’re a bunch of Nancy Pelosi-lites,’’ he muttered. “But the Republican Congress can’t worry about that. They need to get together and go forward with one voice.’’
That gets tougher by the day. A lot of hards words have been spoken within the GOP family. Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t come naturally to politicians. “In Minnesota,’’ Bonoff said, “people like to say that Iron Rangers never forget. But the truth is, neither do the rest of us.’’