Shutdown erodes state's already-sullied reputation for good governance

A veteran political reporter says Minnesota's reputation for good governance has eroded and "gone the way of Northwest Airlines."

Journalist Al Eisele spoke with All Things Considered's Tom Crann this week about how the state government shutdown is being viewed from the nation's capital.

Eisele, who has reported for several Minnesota-based newspapers, now works for The Hill, a D.C.-based newspaper that covers Congress and the business of Washington. He also served as press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale.

Tom Crann: Minnesota has for years had a reputation for good government. So, what does this shutdown say about that reputation?

Al Eisele: Well, Tom, I think it's time to retire the Minnesota model. It's become obsolete. It's gone the way of Northwest Airlines, I'm afraid. First of all, Washington is so obsessed with the whole debt ceiling drama that I think that most people haven't had a chance to look at Minnesota that closely, but I think Minnesota is seen here as a precursor or a microcosm of what's happening in Washington with the government shutdown.

In many ways, what appears to have happened in Minnesota with Governor Dayton, it looks as though he has agreed to Republican demands, I think that's encouraged Republicans in Congress and encouraged them to hang tough against Obama. And they see Dayton as caving in to the Republicans, especially on the issue of not raising taxes. So I think that that is the way that it's viewed by many in Congress.

But as far as the Minnesota model, I don't think the rest of the nation looks to Minnesota any longer as a laboratory of democracy, if you will. Ever since the 1940s and '50s, it has been seen as a state that is a model for good government, but I think that image has eroded greatly in recent years.

I wrote an article in a Twin Cities publication called The Rake, which is no longer in existence, in 2003 saying that the Minnesota model had become unglued in recent years. So I don't think the rest of the nation looks to Minnesota as the model for good government. It's probably time to retire the notion of the Minnesota model.

Crann: If you feel the model was unglued in 2003, then do you feel it's just broken down entirely now? Eisele: I think so ... There were a lot of things. There was the contested senatorial election. There of course is the government shutdown, which is unprecedented. I think there's a certain sympathy, though, for Minnesota, because Minnesota is, like many states right now, really facing problems of budget deficits. And I think there's a certain sympathy that Minnesota is trying to grapple with the same problems that Washington and other states are grappling with.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people look at Minnesota and compare it to the mess in Wisconsin, as a state that just can't quite get it all together.

Crann: It's the only state right now to actually shut down the government. We know it's happened before here and in other parts of the country, but does that make it an outlier? Do you think it's a sign of things to come?

Eisele: I don't know. I have to assume that there will be some resolution of the national debt crisis. Certainly, I don't think there's anybody here who thinks that they want to see the government default and the catastrophic effects of that. As far as the states like Minnesota and others that are facing budget deficits, California's in a similar situation, and there are others, I think it's probably the precursor for what every state is going to be facing in the coming years.

Crann: Is there anything here that provides a framework or maybe a cautionary tale or something to take from the Minnesota experience when you look at the national debate over the debt ceiling? Is it, in fact, do you think a bit of a microcosm?

Eisele: Well, I think it is in that the central issue, both at the federal level and in the case of Minnesota and other states, is the issue of raising taxes to pay for benefits and the willingness to cut benefits ranging from Social Security to Medicare to you name it.

I think that the country is now coming to a realization that everybody's got to share the pain equally, but the question is: Is it the people making over a million dollars a year or whatever having to pay higher taxes or is it the average citizen having to see cutbacks in Medicare and Social Security and other basic services. So that's the issue, but it comes down, I think, to really a debate over how to cut spending and how to reduce the huge deficits that states and the federal government is facing.

Crann: Here in Minnesota we've heard a lot of people expressing that they were fed up with a lack of compromise. Now put this in some historical perspective for us. Is it true there was a fairly recent golden age that had much more compromise, and now we're in a period of really extraordinary lack thereof?

Eisele: I think you're absolutely right that we have seen in recent years, and maybe this isn't unprecedented in American history because you've always had great periods of hyper-partisanship, but in my time in Washington, which goes back to 1965 when I came here as a reporter for the St. Paul newspapers, I have not seen a political atmosphere as poisonous and as rancid as the one we have.

And compromise has become a dirty word. I think a lot of this goes back to 1994, when I helped start the Hill newspaper, the so-called 'Republican Revolution' where Republicans took over Congress for the first time in 40 years, and they had been held under the thumb of the Democrats for a long time, and as soon as they took power, they paid the Democrats back in spades. And then you come into the 2000 election, which is so close, contested, that nobody's still quite sure who won it, and then you have another bitterly contested election in 2004. And it's just the political climate is as toxic as I've seen it.

Crann: And that would be true here in Minnesota, at other state capitols, and in Washington, it sounds like.

Eisele: Well, from what I've read and seen, I'd have to say that it's probably just as much the case in Minnesota as elsewhere. I think to go back to your question of how the people in Washington, in Congress, look at Minnesota, right now I think there's much more interest in the two presidential candidates from Minnesota, particularly Michele Bachmann, who has emerged as a serious figure in recent months.

People don't realize this, but there's an obscure clause in the U.S. Constitution that says Minnesota has a right to have a presidential candidate every four years. I'm kidding, but this year it has two.

I think people are used to the fact that Minnesota often has presidential candidates. They certainly have had a number in recent years, but right now Michele Bachmann is really the talk of Washington, and there's probably more interest in her, and also interest in Tim Pawlenty, but his campaign seems to have not gotten off to the kind of start that she has done.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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