Minnesota Republicans have a dilemma. There are two potential candidates for governor who both have undeniable talent, but also have widely varying skill sets. And the Republicans only get to choose one. How do you decide? Here's how I decided.
First a little history. When I came to Minnesota in the early 1990s, the governor was Arne Carlson, who was politically moderate, irascible but ultimately malleable. He was badged as a Republican, but was a classic example of that species now known as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Carlson would occasionally apply a mild brake to the whims of the legislature, but he was usually willing to cut a deal. To the GOP faithful, Carlson was the equivalent of a mild toothache -- they could live with Carlson if they had to, but they preferred not to. In 1994, incumbent Carlson lost the GOP primary to Allen Quist, whose primary concerns were social issues. Carlson ignored the results of his caucus, defeated Quist in the primary and routed the hapless DFL scold John Marty to gain a second term. Marty is back for another go-around in this cycle, but we'll leave that aside.
Why does this history matter? For better or worse, Carlson was seen by many as a model of what a Minnesota Republican looks like - socially moderate, theoretically conservative on the fiscal side. To the bien pensants who held the reins of news communication in a pre-blog era, Carlson also represented the outer limit of what polite society would tolerate from the Republican Party. And although we are now 12 years past the Carlson era, his template still holds purchase in some important ways.
Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing governor, is far more conservative than Carlson, but on the political spectrum he is also more moderate than either of the two possible candidates in this cycle, Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert. Because Pawlenty was more willing to stand up to the DFL than Carlson ever was, he has moved the political spectrum in Minnesota to the right, perhaps significantly more than anyone thought possible in the 1990s. At the same time, Pawlenty has served the last four years dealing with a legislature that is far more ferociously leftist than the ones Carlson faced. And this ferociously leftist DFL caucus will select an opponent for either Emmer or Seifert.
So which Republican candidate fits the current moment?
If you believe that Republican progress is possible, but only incrementally, then Marty Seifert is the guy you should choose. Marty Seifert understands precisely where we are and is brimming with proposals to deal with the issues at hand. He brings great clarity and can tell you in great detail what ought to be done. He is a technician and tactician of the first order. He has followed the typical Republican leadership path -- pay your dues, work hard and rise through the ranks until your skill set matches the available leadership position. This is the model that brought us Pawlenty at the state level and George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain at the national level.
If you believe that the moment is right for a more fundamental change, then Tom Emmer is the guy. Emmer is at a point in his career where he has seen how things work, but he hasn't really become part of the beast. He's a guy who inspires, primarily because he spends less time analyzing what is happening now and more time talking about what could happen. And while Seifert offers a snapshot and a plausible roadmap, Emmer is offering a vision.
Vision is a tough nut for Republicans and it's been exceedingly rare to find a Republican who has it. The obvious (and grossly unfair) example is Ronald Reagan. When Reagan won election in 1980, almost no one except Ronald Reagan could have envisioned that the mighty Soviet Union would implode in a decade.
I don't see evidence that Tom Emmer has a vision on that grand a scale, but I do think he has a vision of how to get to a smaller, more human-scale government in Minnesota. And I also think he has the skill set to communicate the idea to a larger audience than the GOP caucus. I also think that the moment is right to take an alternative, conservative vision to the electorate.
In the end, it comes down to this. Clarity is crucial, but a visionary leader can find lieutenants who can provide it. Ronald Reagan found George H. W. Bush. It's far more difficult for a clear-thinking tactical leader to find a vision. George H. W. Bush famously mused about the elusiveness of the "vision thing" throughout his career. Republicans will need both clarity and vision to win this election and to govern effectively thereafter. Tom Emmer has a better chance of providing both traits. And that is why I support Tom Emmer for governor.