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What’s up with the fierce and warlike budget language?

Date Published: 02/18/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President


‘Get out of our way,’ ‘Leave us alone,’ ‘Burning the boats,’ ‘Slashing the beast’-Gov. Pawlenty has always liked sounding fierce

All this slashing and burning and budget-cutting talk at the Capitol evokes the vivid imagery that brand new Gov. Tim Pawlenty employed exactly seven years ago, in announcing that he was leading Minnesota on a new and swashbuckling tax-free fiscal adventure.

He compared himself in early 2003 to a bold explorer who was leading Minnesota into uncharted territory, a leaner and more productive economic world, and he actually said at one point that Minnesota was landing “on a distant shore” and “burning the boats.”

The boats in his analogy, of course, were taxes. There would be no going back to that boring, old, time-honored Minnesota way of actually raising state revenues as part of a response to a severe state revenue shortage.

The word picture Pawlenty painted had a kind of warlike ferocity and barbaric feel to it, and that can be intoxicating.

I’ve noticed that this kind of language seems to be particularly favored by younger, conservative, white male politicians who have never served in the military.

As a U.S. Navy veteran and a student of history, I also remember thinking at the time that while burning the boats sounded like fun, we really ought not be destroying any watercraft.

I kept thinking in 2003, when Pawlenty was new, of the original colonists who landed on the distant shores of Plymouth and Jamestown and who, thankfully, took very good care of their boats.

They knew they would have to go back for more supplies, more help, more money and reinforcements, as they slowly built communities through common wealth as well as individual effort.

Seven years later, we’re lost in the wilderness of that distant shore.

The net job growth and prosperity that Pawlenty promised would result from burning the boats has not materialized; in fact, we are worse off economically now than we were a decade ago. And now Pawlenty is asking us to believe that we should disinvest further in our schools, in our safety net for those who inevitably fall, and in all of the human capital and physical infrastructure that sustains our business growth.

The savagery of the language is as fierce as ever, and it harmonizes with the choleric rage fomented at Tea Party rallies, in which our own governments are transformed into our enemies and our taxes, already among the lowest of any wealthy democratic nation, are evil incarnate.

As Pawlenty explores further a run for the presidency, it’s fascinating to note that the most ringing phrases from his State of the State address were highlighted as subheads in Star Tribune front-page story on the speech and by other media as well.

“Leave us alone!” and “Get out of our way!” Pawlenty declared, presuming to speak for business leaders in the state, making the case that only private-sector captains of commerce and industry could be the “true source” of our economic salvation.

In laying out his budget, which includes further tax cuts and breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals, Pawlenty defiantly and unapologetically described the tax cuts as just the beginning, as “a spit in the ocean compared to what should be done.”

This bellicosity is likely to play very well to the hard-core, anti-government base of activists who have enormous sway on the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Interestingly, “Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives” is the actual title of uber-conservative Grover Norquist’s latest book, published in late 2008.

Norquist, a Massachusetts ideologue who arrived on the scene in the Reagan era, leads a group called the “Leave Us Alone Coalition.”

And Norquist is the unquestioned father of the No New Taxes pledge that was sold to many conservative candidates, most notably Pawlenty in his 2002 battle for governor with an even more conservative opponent.

As an important player in - or founder of - some of the nation’s most absolutist conservative organizations, Norquist is credited widely for the success of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in securing his party’s nomination for president.

Norquist, of course, is most famous for describing our democratic and mostly effective federal, state and local governments as “beasts,” and he has said that our governments need to be starved until they are small enough to be “drowned in a bathtub.”

Norquist also has actually said that governments need to be cut in half, and cut in half again-a truly preposterous notion.

It’s impossible to imagine a federal-state-local public sector that’s 75 percent smaller that could sustain the Middle East wars, Social Security, Medicare or our nation’s transportation system.

As legislators in both parties grapple with the most troubling economic situation and the prospect of real damage to the people who rely on our governments-and that’s all of us-I can’t help but think of the contrast in language employed by another tall and lanky

Midwestern Republican, Abraham Lincoln.

A brilliant PBS documentary this week reminded us of a time when the fierce conservative philosophy of the Confederacy had rent the nation asunder and secessionists were demanding to be left alone.

Lincoln ended up fighting hard and just as fiercely, presiding over the bloodiest war in our history, to protect the idea of “union” and to impose a measure of human equality and justice that had never existed before.

And when the war was over, he sought to “bind up wounds” and to exhibit “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” Central to Lincoln’s idea of governments and union is that we’re all in the same boat.

So maybe we shouldn’t be burning them.



Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.

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