Minnesota Nice is an expression describing the stereotypical behavior of long-time Minnesota residents, namely to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. According to historian Annette Atkins, the cultural characteristics of Minnesota Nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation. It can also refer to bland conversations about weather and traffic behavior, such as slowing down to allow another driver to enter a lane in front of you. I guess we’ll never hear of New York Nice.
Several years ago, I spent a month in St. Paul, researching the work of The Citizens League of Minnesota. Unlike other American "good government" groups, The Citizens League is run by its members, all volunteers, with help from a professional staff. It is the members who choose topics for discussion and consideration each year and who prepare reports and draft legislation for the Minnesota legislature. Professor John Brandl of the Hubert Humphrey International School at the University of Minnesota claims that the Citizens League is an institution unique to Minnesota, where the central ethic is that people participate as volunteers and seekers of the public good, not as agents of special interests. Now, that’s Minnesota Nice.
The US has yet to elect a president from Minnesota, though the state came close with Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Walter Mondale won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1984. This year, two state hopefuls have emerged in the race for 2012. Oddly, both are Republicans in a state where Democrats have traditionally held sway, although the Reagan influence has seen Minnesota Republicans elected frequently to the US Congress and the Governor’s mansion. Nowadays, the state is split politically.
One of the hopefuls, Michele Bachmann, is a flag waver for the far right-wing of the Republican Party and the values of the Tea Party. For example, Bachmannn supports the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes. In October 2006, she told a debate audience in St. Cloud, "There is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact or not....There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design." She has yet to name one.
Bachmann opposes minimum wage increases, supports increased domestic drilling of oil and natural gas, as well as pursuing renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, and is a strong proponent of nuclear power. It is her stance on taxes and entitlements that is most distinctive, however. Before her election to the state senate, and again in 2005, Bachmann signed a "no new taxes" pledge sponsored by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. As a state senator, she introduced two bills that would have severely limited state taxation. In 2005, Bachmann opposed Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s proposal for a state surcharge of 75 cents per pack on the wholesale cost of cigarettes because it was a tax increase. Later she came under fire from the Taxpayers' League for reversing her position and voting in favor of the cigarette surcharge.
Unsurprisingly, Bachmann has called for phasing out of Social Security and Medicare: “What you have to do, is keep faith with the people that are already in the system, that don’t have any other options, we have to keep faith with them. But basically what we have to do is wean everybody else off.”
On foreign policy, it’s Fortress America for Bachmann. In a discussion about the 2010 G-20 summit in Toronto, Bachmann stated that she did not want America to be part of the international system: “I don't want the United States to be in a global economy where our economic future is bound to that of Zimbabwe, We can't necessarily trust the decisions that are being made financially in other countries.
Bachmann supports both a federal and state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and any legal equivalents. She reportedly said of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, "We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders".
In 2006, Bachmann stated that she would vote to permit abortion in cases of rape and incest. In the state senate, Bachmann introduced a bill proposing a constitutional amendment restricting state funds for abortion. The bill died in committee.
When Tim Pawlenty --- also hoping to be the Republican Presidential nominee in 2012 --- was elected Governor of Minnesota in 2002, the state was one of the highest-taxed in the Union. Pawlenty ran on a platform of balancing the state's budget without raising taxes. He emphasized his campaign and first term with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota slogan, "No new taxes". His Governorship was characterized by a historically low rate of spending growth. According to the Minnesota Management and Budget Department, general-fund expenditures from 2004 to 2011 increased an average of 3.5% per two-year term, compared to an average of 21.1% percent from 1960 to 2003. Although these numbers are not inflation-adjusted, they demonstrate a cool hand on the state tiller.
In his first year as governor, Pawlenty inherited a projected two-year budget deficit of $4.3 billion, the largest in Minnesota's history. After a contentious budget session with a Democrat-controlled Senate, he signed a package of fee increases, spending reductions, and government re-organisation which eliminated the deficit. The budget reduced the rate of funding increases for state services, including transportation, social services, and welfare. It also enacted a perennial proposal to restructure city aid based on immediate need, rather than historical factors. In negotiations, the governor agreed to several compromises, abandoning a desired public employee wage freeze and property tax restrictions.
During his second term, Pawlenty erased a $2.7 billion deficit by cutting spending, shifting payments, and using one-time federal stimulus money. His final budget (2010–2011) heralded the state's first two-year period since 1960 in which net government expenditures decreased. (Pawlenty has claimed this as "the first time in 150 years" that spending has been cut, but fact-checkers have disputed this claim on grounds that no public budget records prior to 1960 are known to exist.) Such fiscal policies did not endear Pawlenty to dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, but he restored long needed financial prudence to the state, even if the state department of Management and Budget reports that the two-year budget starting in July 2011 is projected to come up $4.4 billion short.
Pawlenty calls himself a social conservative. Interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, he said Social Security and Medicare needed to be cut to balance the federal budget, not the best vote-getter. Pawlenty believes that state governments should outlaw abortion, except for cases of rape, incest, and to save a woman's life. He thinks the United States Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade wrongly, abortion being a state, not a federal, matter. He opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions. He would like to reinstate the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, should he become President.
In a December 2010 column in the Wall Street Journal, Pawlenty argued in favor of the historical benefits of "private sector" labor unions and strongly against "public sector" labor unions, whose collective bargaining rights he would like to see curbed: "The rise of the labor movement in the early 20th century was a triumph for America's working class. In an era of deep economic anxiety, unions stood up for hard-working but vulnerable families, protecting them from physical and economic exploitation."
He also criticized modern unions: "The moral case for unions—protecting working families from exploitation—does not apply to public employment....Unionised public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt."
While Pawlenty and Bachmann have some ideas in common, but I ask myself, "What would America look like two years into a Bachmann presidency, as opposed to a Pawlenty administration? Will Bachmann have plunged America into more recession, will she have engaged in more wars, whilst becoming estranged from historic allies, and will the American middle class be propping up the wealthy again?"
All thse queries may pale, however, before the political reality that Pawlenty is unlikely to get the Republican nomination. He is "charisma lite" in a nation where voters seem to care as much for looks as for thoughts. If he could overcome this hurdle, he would make a worthy opponent for Obama.
Should Bachmann win the presidency, I content myself with the words of President Harry Truman when asked about his successor Dwight Eisenhower’s victory in 1952:“Ike will get into the White House, order this and order that like he was still in the military and wonder why none of his orders is obeyed and nothing gets done.”