How far can extremes of politics be carried?

Published 9:02 am Friday, February 25, 2011

Just a year ago, it looked like Minnesota’s then-governor, Tim Pawlenty, had crafted himself golden credentials during his two terms in office.

The governor’s refusal to countenance tax increases had earned him a nationwide reputation as a fiscal conservative. His attempt to trump the legislative process by “unalotting” budgeted state spending ultimately failed, but drew as much attention as a conservative politician with presidential aspirations could hope for.

It was all enough to propel Pawlenty into the forefront of conservatives who are spending the “off season” of presidential politics touring the country to keep his name in the news and to raise funds – both necessary steps for those who eventually decide to declare their candidacy.

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Other than starring in his own television show or appearing on “dancing with the stars,” there wasn’t much more a retired governor could do to promote himself as a possible candidate.

Suddenly, though, merely saying “no” to taxes doesn’t look like much. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker swept into office and immediately became the biggest name in conservative politics by pushing Wisconsin lawmakers to effectively eliminate the bargaining rights of public employees’ unions.

With dramatic protests unfolding in Madison, Senate Democrats fleeing the state to block a vote and every national network camped on his door 24/7, Walker has raised the ante.

Several other Republican governors have met the challenge by pushing massive changes for public employees in their own states. Indiana even matched Wisconsin’s situation when Democratic lawmakers fled to Illinois to stop the union-crushing juggernaut.

(Is it a bit of a slam that these people all fled to Illinois? Makes sense for the Indiana folks, but couldn’t the Wisconsin senators have come to Minnesota to spend their tourism dollars? Seriously, Illinois in the winter? Someone from the Minnesota tourism office ought to send those people a couple of discount hotel coupons.)

So Minnesotans have to wonder whether their ex-governor’s politics, once seen as extraordinarily hard-line, will be forgotten a few years down the road. Will they be seen as too middle-of-the-road to grab attention from an increasingly extreme electorate?

And if Pawlenty’s politics prove to be moderate by current standards, what sort of ideas can we expect to hear when the presidential race heats up in a year or so and candidates are desperately trying to top — or refute —the Gov. Walkers of the world. What will politicians have to do to get attention? Will it be all goofball talk — ala Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann — and extremes?

While there may be some merit to the ideas that Walker and others are pushing at the state level, and that the new Republican Congress is pushing at the federal level, what seems to be missing in the whole equation is any semblance of a plan.

There is little doubt — none, really — that America’s government has grown too big, its spending excessive. We just can’t keep up with all the costs we have built into our system. But simply slashing spending is almost as bad as no cuts at all. Consider, for instance, that some Washington bureaucrats have already said that spending cuts or a short-term government shut-down would endanger the mailing of benefits checks to millions of seniors. Seriously, is that the best we can do? Is that the best plan?

Of course it is not. But it is the likely outcome when putting on a political show becomes the top priority.

When politicians are in a race to top each other, which surely now seems to be the case, it might please some of the electorate – but probably not for long, because the consequences of failing to plan will not be pleasant for anyone.

Pawlenty left Minnesota facing a massive deficit. But the way things are going, we might soon be looking back on that as the good old days.