Dayton's critics should remember that politics is the art of the possible

Professor Monte Bute
Sociology professor Monte Bute contemplates a reading in his class at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Bute was diagnosed with pulmonary lymphoma last year, and has used his diagnosis to help teach his students about western society's view of dying.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Political science pundits like the University of Minnesota's Larry Jacobs and Kathryn Pearson have expressed harsh criticism of Gov. Mark Dayton and the budget agreement. I suspect that neither of these academics has ever cut a high-stakes political deal. Sorry, but politics is the art of the possible.

Yes, a tax on millionaires would have been sweet and just. It wasn't going to happen. Yes, the additional spending came from kicking the can into the next biennium. Yes, we need a long-term budget fix. Get a grip. With these Tea Party ideologues controlling the Legislature, the only structural solution possible this session would have been to agree to the GOP's $34.4 billion budget.

Look at the results. Dayton sought a $35.8 billion budget. The GOP jumped over its $34.4 billion line in the sand. The governor got $35.8 billion. Do you have any idea of how many ruthless budget cuts this $1.4 billion will circumvent? From Jan. 4 to May 23, the Republicans refused to enact a bonding bill. Dayton just took them to the cleaners -- $500 million in bonding appropriations was the best job creator and economic stimulus available this session. Remember, this is not even a bonding year.

Additionally, all the controversial social policies that Republicans sought are dead, including banning stem cell research and taxpayer funding of abortions; requiring voters to show photo IDs, and repealing Minnesota's participation in the new federal health care program. Finally, the GOP gave up cutting the public employee workforce by 15 percent.

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By making an astute move, Dayton not only gained the moral and political high ground, but he put Sen. Amy Koch and Rep. Kurt Zellers in a double bind. There was no way they could refuse this deal without taking the entire blame for the state government shutdown. Make no mistake: The Republican leadership gave away far more than it intended.

Liberal critics are saying Dayton got nothing more than what was on the table June 30. Hogwash. He got the bonding bill, protected the state workforce from reckless reductions and eliminated all social policy nonsense -- in addition to $1.4 billion more in spending for health and social programs. The Tea Party faction in the state Senate clearly understands this. One of its leading voices was quoted in the Star Tribune: "Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, indicated via Twitter that the conditions may be problematic. 'Let's be clear. Governor did NOT "accept" the June 30 offer,' Thompson tweeted. 'He has simply attached new conditions to the June 30 framework.' "

Kudos to the governor. Given the Hobson's choice he faced, his political endgame was brilliant; he got what was politically possible. Now it is up to the DFL and liberals to regain the House and Senate in 2012. If they do, then what's possible will expand to include the long-term changes all the bystanders are calling for.


Monte Bute is a professor of sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University. Previously, he spent two decades engaged in political work.