Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #046. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 24, 2011

I submitted this column, as required, on Friday, three days before the constitutionally mandated end of the Minnesota legislative session. I suspected then that nothing would be resolved and a special session (maybe even an eventual shutdown) would loom. The editor said I could alter the opening as late as mid-Monday, in case things changed. They had not. But as you’re reading this, you know how it turned out at midnight.

A budget deal by midnight Monday was about as likely as the rapture at 6 p.m. Saturday.

But whatever the upshot, we’ve seen during the past several months in St. Paul and Washington a political drama that can be cast with two main protagonists, both of whom were born a century ago.

2 leaders

Ronald Reagan’s centenary was celebrated Feb. 6.

Friday will mark Hubert Humphrey’s 100th birthday.

The Minnesotan who was mayor of Minneapolis at age 34 (the youngest up to that time), a U.S. senator for 22 years, and U.S. vice president was an articulate champion of the view that when we the people established a government, it wasn’t a mistake.

Humphrey famously declared that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” He did not say that the moral test of government is how small it is and how little it does.

Reagan famously said, in his first inaugural, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and Republicans in the U.S. Congress and the Minnesota Legislature have been repeating this mantra as though Reagan got it directly from God on Mount Sinai.

Reagan was not dogmatic, however.

Yes, he cut taxes in 1981. But he signed off on a large tax increase on business in 1982, higher payroll taxes in 1983 and higher energy taxes in 1984. He knew the truth of what James Russell Lowell wrote in an 1845 poem that has become a familiar hymn: “new occasions teach new duties.”

While I disagree with most of Reagan’s positions, he was more statesperson than ideologue. He put concern for the public good over rigid adherence to ideology.

My preference would have been for Gov. Mark Dayton not to compromise on his initial budget proposal to cover more than $3 billion of the deficit with tax increases, but I understand and applaud his recognition that a pluralistic democracy can’t function if everyone insists on “my way or the highway” — which litters the landscape with roads to nowhere.

It is appalling, and not even Reaganesque, for Minnesota’s Republican legislators to claim that they, dogmatically fixated on “no new taxes,” are the ones giving way.

But I can understand the intransigence of some who might otherwise let their more flexible and reasonable selves prevail. They vividly recall the plight of their six colleagues, including Bud Heidgerken, one of this area’s finest House members in recent years, who voted in 2008 to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase.

The Republican Party treated them as heretics and anathematized them to outer darkness.

Too rigid

My use of religious terminology — dogma, heresy, anathema — is not accidental. The tone and tenor of GOP discussion of “no new taxes” and a myriad of other positions this session is remarkably absolutist — invoking a sense of unchecked and total authority almost religious in nature, what they call their “mandate.” It hearkens back to a time when people believed in the divine right of monarchs.

Rigid ideological adherence to “cuts only” as a solution to the budget deficit makes a mockery of Humphrey’s moral test of government. It also scorns Reagan the statesperson.

I don’t expect Republicans to toast my Saint Hubert on Friday, but at the very least they should consider doing as their Saint Ronald did, not as he said.