The recount process for the Minnesota Gubernatorial Race starts this week. The national political significance of this recount is simply not as great as the Senatorial recount two years ago. That recount determined the balance of power in Washington, sort of. It also determined the insertion into the Senate of someone clearly destine by his own abilities and energy to be one of the great ones, Al Franken, and the removal of someone clearly shown by his own actions to be one of the embarrassing ones, Norm Coleman.
But the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial race in Minnesota is not without both pragmatic and symbolic consequence at the national level, for three reasons: Governors become presidents, Minnesota is the most important blue state from a symbolic perspective, and which party wins (Democratic Farm Labor vs Tea Party) will have a modest rhetorical effect on the current national political conversation.
Governors matter if for no other reason than that they often run for president (and occasionally succeed) … many of our presidential FTE’s for the last and present century have been governors(over half of the last 10 president’s worth of years in office have been served by one-time governors). There are fifty governors at any given time. Who is in this small group of people is important.
Who is governor of Minnesota matters in another way. Minnesota is traditionally a blue state, however, we have the capacity of turning red, like our hapless neighbors to the east seem to have done. This is symbolically very important because, and you probably don’t know this, Minnesota invented modern blue state. Or, to put it another way, the key distinctions between red and blue that we all know and love (or hate) today were defined by a Minnesota politician who well represented his people and who succeeded to the extend that he did because, in part, of his regional and cultural origins.
Back in the old days, until some time in the 1950s, the Republican Party was on average more socially liberal than the Democratic Party, and the Democrats included lefties and righties and everyone in betweenies, including what we would today call the right wing. Much of that social right consisted of southern white men with two middle names … “Jim” and “Crow.” In case I’m being too subtle here, let met restate that: The democrats included a large number of southern governors, representatives, and senators (oh, and governors) who either wanted to bring slavery back or at least keep in place laws that segregated blacks from whites, with separate schools, separate public bathrooms, separate restaurants or parts of restaurants, and separate seating areas on buses, and to keep blacks from voting. It was OK to tax them.
Then, one day, the Mayor of Minneapolis gave a speech at a political convention. He made the link between Jim Crow style discrimination and a society’s morality and ethics. He was well versed in that day’s evangelical style and rhetoric (very different from today’s) so he used that to appeal to the ‘Puritan’ thinking of America’s working class. He was very smart and well educated in political philosophy so he used that to appeal to the pundits. He had what was then a somewhat refreshing, if not exotic accent, so he sounded different than the New York politicians who ran much of the country at the time. He was a Democrat but far enough from the center of power of the Democratic machine to use Tammany Hall as a sour metaphor without getting himself disenfranchised by the power brokers. He made the argument that the color barrier which so pervasively and powerfully structured American society was a daily act of immorality and that instead of reinforcing it or even ignoring it we should … and could … and must … dismantle it.
Hubert H. Humphrey’s speech on that day and his other speeches before and after were so powerful that the course of American politics reoriented for the next 15 years, and thus, in some ways, forever. The Civil Rights act that was passed under Lyndon Johnson (while Humphrey was Vice President) was Humphrey’s bil, which he had introduced to the senate numerous times before, and it passed because of Humphrey’s tireless effort despite the valiant and nefarious efforts of the racists. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mayor, and later Senatory Humphrey and others worked in Minnesota to create and evolve the Democratic Farm Labor party, which brought together farmers with their conservative version of welfare politics and isolationism, labor with their socialist leanings and focus on urban working class and poor, and idealistic Democrats, infused with Humphrey’s insistence on civil rights reform. This, Humphrey’s DFL party is the modern Democratic party, in both its liberal and centrists forms.
When Humphrey finished his speech, the conservative southern Democrats … the ones that wanted slavery back and saw the black men and women who were the majority in their own states as less than human … left the party. Literally. They rose to their feet at the convention and made a flamboyant show of marching out. They became the “Dixiecrats” … conservative southern democrats … and over subsequent years, singly or in small numbers, joined the Republican Party. You know some of their names (certainly, Strom Thurmond).
Hubert Humphrey, then, was not only central to defining the modern Democratic Party but he was also a key person indirectly responsible for placing unapologetic racism squarely in the Republican party, where it has resided since, though with various levels of effort to white wash it with a thin coat of denial. Humphrey was a key figure in defining the palette with which our political map is painted today.
One of the two candidates for governor in Minnesota is a traditional Humphrey style Democrat, Mark Dayton. It is not even a tiny bit discordant to see Mark Dayton give a speech organized by the Walter and Joan Mondale Chair at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center in Minneapolis, for instance. The other candidate is a tea-bag supported Republican Robot who’s rhetoric is identical to that of our current governor, Presidential Hopeless, I mean Hopeful, Tim Pawlenty, or for that matter Michel Bachmann, or any of the other fish out of water we find flopping around the Minnesota political scene these days. An Emmer (that’s the tebagger) victory will be yet one more news item in favor of taking the teabaggers seriously. A Dayton victory will be one more nail in the coffin of the soon to burn out racist, sexist, anti-gay movement that is so unlike our state and that needs to go away as soon as possible.
Let it fester in Texas, but not thrive in the north star state.
So the third reason that the outcome of this recount is important is the symbolic meaning, and a subset of this has to do with our current lame duck. Our hapless dork of a governor, Tim “Let the deer bleed to death in the cold woods” Pawlenty, is actively seeking the nomination of the Republican Party for president. He has no chance. He has the name recognition of a Byzantium monk. He does have a perfect record, as Governor, of being an unmitigated but fully tea party authorized ass. Except in one area: Early in his gubernatorial stint he caved on his “no taxes” pledge by agreeing to steep increases in fees. Some of these fees were in fact called “taxes” in the vernacular (were they technically? who knows? who cares?) There are a lot of red fish in the sickening sea of tea from which the Republican party could choose a short list of candidates for their next presidential bid. One with a flaw need not be considered at all, certainly not nurtured. Tim Pawlenty’s lack of national name recognition or positive polling is due to the fact that he has been pre-rejected by his party. That decision was made in connection with the national convention held in Saint Paul. But Tim, not the brightest bulb in the marquee, has not understood that so he plods only towards a greater obscurity than that accomplished by him thus far. I doubt he will even get a mention in the Wikipedia article, yet to be written, on the 2012 Presidential Campaign.
So, all sentient Minnesotans and political junkies nation wide will be watching this process with interest.
There will be sausage making, and vast amounts of energy will be spent in what is likely to be a grueling process linked to a larger and tumultuous national debate. But that’s how it works, as attested to by the words of Humbert Humphrey: “American public opinion is like an ocean, it cannot be stirred by a teaspoon.”