Tom West: DFL needs to reconstitute itself

Sifting through the discarded placards at various campaign rallies after Tuesday's election, one tries to spin the result one way and then another. With only a couple of "what ifs," however, the result keeps coming out as a resounding Republican ...

Sifting through the discarded placards at various campaign rallies after Tuesday's election, one tries to spin the result one way and then another. With only a couple of "what ifs," however, the result keeps coming out as a resounding Republican victory.

The fact is that the voters set some well defined priorities. At the top is that national security comes before the economy. It does one no good to have a good-paying job if one is dead. The voters want conceal-carry. They want visa expiration dates on driver's licenses. They want a homeland security force that is worried about only that, and not about the politics of union bargaining. Vietnam is over. Play the political correctness card on those issues and you're going to get trashed.

Second, the economy is more important than government programs. People can't afford to pay more taxes if they're out of work. Don't tell people wondering if they'll have a pay check next week that they need to raise taxes so a government employee will have an even larger check.

Third, the voters said, "We like the two-party system, and we're sticking to it." The Greens have been returned to minor party status. Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny ensured that the Indies will have two more years as a major party, but after that one can expect that they'll be gone, too. (Penny refused to run any attack ads or take any special interest money which shows, in spite of everybody's protests, what voters really think about those tactics. They don't matter.)

Fourth, citizens re-engaged with their government. Predictions of 40 percent voter turnout were surpassed by noon in some places. Minnesota had its best off-year turnout in 20 years.


All of this says that the DFL has some deep, deep problems which, if they aren't addressed, will consign the party to permanent minority status. Only Attorney General Mike Hatch has statewide stature, and he can choose in 2006 whether he wants to run for governor or senator.

By every measurement, 2002 should have been a Democratic year. The experts say a heavy turnout favors the DFL. The off-year election traditionally favors the party opposed to the president. (Until Tuesday, Minnesota had elected only three senators from the president's party in off-year elections. In the last 72 years, only two governors from the president's party were elected in the off-year. Never had Minnesotans elected both in one year.) The economy, stock market, 401(k)s and IRAs are in the tank. What more did the DFL need to take control of the state?

How about a positive vision?

People wanted more than criticism. They wanted answers. If I "ran" the DFL (a phenomenon impossible under natural law), here's what I'd do. I'd reconstitute the party. I'd stop being the party of the government employees, environmentalists and peaceniks. (They'll stick with the DFL because they have no place else to go.) Instead, I would become the party of small business opportunity. I'd go after corporate welfare with a vengeance, and get rid of those obstacles that push the threshold for business survival so high that only the big can survive.

I'd let the Republicans gut the government (with grudging but not obstructionist opposition), giving the GOP enough rope to hang itself.

Undoubtedly, many public employee and teacher strikes are in store. If they come off as a grab for greed, run for cover. If they are about saving core state services and education programs, show support.

I'd embrace Gov. Tim Pawlenty's call for accountability in government. (Two can play that game.) I'd fight for education funding, but part with the teachers on accountability.

Finally, I would stand side-by-side with the Republicans on security issues, standing up for civil rights only when the threat to liberty is genuine, standing up for openness in government when it isn't, and never fighting over some imagined rule of political correctness.


This election was about serious issues. The frivolous prosperity of the '90s, that allowed the election of a professional wrestler, is over. After Sept. 11, any party that doesn't understand that voters have little patience for the silliness of 1990s politics will not be put in power.

There are two big "what ifs" that would have created a different spin for the DFL. The first is, what if Paul Wellstone had lived? Polls indicated that he was winning (although the actual results have discredited virtually all of the polls taken in the last month). The other is, what if Tim Penny had not run for governor? Unquestionably, most of Penny's votes would have gone to DFLer Roger Moe. Had Wellstone and Moe been elected, it would have looked like a typical victory for the party opposing the president.

However, the results in the Minnesota Legislature reveal the DFL's weakness. Today, there are more Republican legislators than at any time since party designation took effect 30 years ago. The Republicans have an unprecedented 30-seat majority in the House, and they are just four votes short in the Senate, the closest they have ever been. Nine of the 11 incumbents defeated were DFL. Further, if the enthusiasm for Wellstone failed to transfer to Mondale, it means that it was Wellstone's personality, not his policies, that held his appeal.

DFLers can point fingers at Rick Kahn and the Wellstone boys as an opportunity squandered. They can curse the fate that brought down that plane. They can admit that their old warhorses, Moe and Mondale, are past their prime. But until they recognize that the times are, indeed, a changin,' until they come up with new solutions to new issues, until they come up with new candidates with new visions, outside of northeastern Minnesota and inner city Minneapolis-St. Paul they will not prevail.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by e-mail at .

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