The George W. Bush years made plain to progressives just how much power a president wields. Many on the left concluded that all we need is to elect a Democrat as president to solve all of our problems. With the efforts of groups like America Votes, Progress Now and the Democracy Alliance, Democrats bolstered their electoral infrastructure in 2008 and won big.
However, the first two years of the Obama presidency taught us an important lesson: electoral power does not equal governing power. Obama spent a full year lining up his own party on a health care bill of diminished size, scope and ambition. A modest financial reform bill took a Democratic-controlled Congress twenty-two months to pass and the BP oil spill reminds us all that America lacks a coherent energy policy.
How do progressives meet the challenge of a daunting midterm election while also laying the ground work for a bolder governing agenda? To start, we must admit that our own short-sighted electoral strategies do not create the necessary political space for the change we want. Second, we have to get across a new kind of story about the roles of citizens and government in a time of intense cynicism and tea party clatter.
Some of the best ideas on how to make change that can stick can be found in the states, where progressives are experimenting with innovative strategies to build a progressive governing infrastructure that lasts far beyond Election Day. One such example is the reNEW Minnesota Campaign, led by the grassroots organization, TakeAction Minnesota.
The Story of the reNEW Minnesota Campaign
Minnesota is a solidly purple state that no longer fits the political profile associated with Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone. While it’s voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1972, the state hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor in twenty-four years.
After eight years at the helm, Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty (a Republican who never earned more than 46.7 percent of the vote in his two separate three-way elections) is stepping down, presumably to run for President. In his wake, Pawlenty has left Minnesota with a $5.8 billion budget deficit — one of the worst in the country. Holding tight to his no new taxes pledge, Pawlenty’s Minnesota has become a national leader in economic, educational and health care inequality. Once known for its innovative state policies, Minnesota is now watching its human and physical infrastructure literally crumble. What happens in Minnesota’s 2010 race for governor has huge implications for how the Heartland responds to this storm of economic recession and political cynicism.
Rather than approach the governor’s race this year with the same strategies and expect different results (the very definition of insanity), progressives in Minnesota decided on a completely different line of attack for 2010. Led by TakeAction Minnesota—a young and growing statewide organization of individuals and organizations that traces its roots back to Paul Wellstone—progressives in the state started organizing a full twenty-two months before Election Day 2010 to break the 24-year drought.