Always seeking a perch somewhere just slightly to the right of center, Senator David Durenberger regarded government as a problem-solver of something other than the first resort. Today he is not so sure.

When Republicans Were Progressive, by Dave Durenberger (296 pages, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018)

Long before the country was divided into blue states and red states, not to mention counties as well, Minnesota was red across the board and in more ways than one. For nearly a century following statehood Minnesota was Republican red with splotches of Farmer-Laborite deep red eventually mixed in. The shift to today’s shade of red began with the 1944 merger of the Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties. That shift was thrust into high gear with the 1948 election of Hubert Humphrey to the U.S. senate. Never before had the state sent a Democrat, albeit one of the DFL variety, to the nation’s upper chamber. Today the state is represented by not one, but two, reliably and decidedly left of center DFL female senators.

Caught in the middle of this historic transfer of political power was one David Durenberger. Elected in 1978 to complete the term of the late Hubert Humphrey, who had returned to the senate in 1970 following his thankless stint as LBJ’s veep and a losing presidential bid in 1968, Mr. Durenberger would be re-elected in 1982 and 1988. He chose not to run in 1994.

Never a wealthy man, the senator had cut a few financial corners that threatened his re-election prospects. There was also the still fresh memory of the stunning 1990 defeat of incumbent GOP Senator Rudy Boschwitz at the hands of leftist populist Paul Wellstone.

Always a GOP loyalist and long a GOP activist, Mr. Durenberger had served the party in a variety of ways, including chief of staff to a GOP governor in the late 1960’s, before his first run for elective office. That would be his 1978 senate bid. He then went a perfect three for three as a candidate.

During his time in the senate Mr. Durenberger established a reputation as an authority on health care issues, while schooling himself on education and national security matters as well. He was, in short, that rare combination of effective vote getter and serious policy wonk. Now well into retirement, an octogenarian Mr. Durenberger offers this combination of memoir and history from the vantage point of the political wilderness to which confused Minnesota Republicans have been largely consigned. In its own way this book adds to the confusion.

Is the Minnesota Republican party a progressive party or a conservative party? Is it the party of Trump or is it not the party of Trump? A “never Trumper” in 2016 and an anti-Trumper today, Mr. Durenberger defines himself as a progressive. But what did—and does—that mean? As a senator, Mr. Durenberger actually functioned as a moderate, even a moderate conservative, on most every issue.

Always seeking a perch somewhere just slightly to the right of center, Senator Durenberger regarded government as a problem solver of something other than the first resort. Today he is not so sure. It seemed to be his position that market forces should generally be permitted to work their will, but something called unfettered market forces should not. This was the Senator Durenberger approach no matter the market, and that would include the market for his signature issues of health insurance and health care. Government always had a role to play, but that role was to be pretty much confined to keeping the market fair, honest and transparent. Today he seems to be far less sure.

In sum, this self-proclaimed Minnesota Republican progressive has been drifting progressively leftward. This drift began well before the election of Donald Trump and has only accelerated since the onset of the Trump presidency. So just what was—and is—a Minnesota progressive? By Mr. Durenberger’s reckoning, it was defined by an activist government, but one generally that played second fiddle to the market. Fair enough. But the waters get progressively muddier when non-economic issues come into play. These would be those troubling social issues that have long bedeviled Mr. Durenberger and therefore bedevil his version of what the Republican party should be. At the heart of this book is Mr. Durenberger’s plea for his party to return to its role of playing second fiddle to the Democrats when it comes to the proper role of government vis a vis markets. Given that plea, he might just as accurately have titled this book, “When Republicans Were Content to be Moderately Somewhere Just to the Right of Center or Just to the Right of Democrats, Whichever Was Less Rightist.”

Either way, the book is a lamentation for a bygone day. Mr. Durenberger denies as much, preferring instead to hope for his party’s return to his version of moderate progressivism. Good luck with that!

His history of Minnesota Republican progressivism begins with Harold Stassen. That would not be elder statesman Harold Stassen and his string of quixotic runs for the presidency. Instead it would be the “Boy Wonder” Harold Stassen who at the age of 31 captured the Minnesota governorship in 1938 by first defeating his party’s pre-progressive “Old Guard” and then outpolling an increasingly leftist and increasingly corrupt Farmer-Labor party. The nearly irrelevant third party of that interwar era was the state’s moribund Democratic party.

Mr. Durenberger proceeds to take his readers on a tour of progressive (meaning moderately progressive?) post-Stassen GOP governors as the Minnesota state color gradually went from red to purple (or maybe the maroon of Minnesota maroon and gold) to blue. The list begins with Governor Luther Youngdahl and his war against slot machines. Along the way Mr. Durenberger recalls Governor Elmer L. Anderson, 1961-63, (for whom he worked in the private sector), Governor Harold Levander, 1967-71 (for whom he served as chief of staff), Governor Al Quie, 1979-83, who shared the platform with Mr. Durenberger and Boschwitz as partners in the “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978, and Governor Arne Carlson, 1991-99, whose two terms fell on either side of Mr. Durenberger’s last senate term.

Curiously missing from this lineup is two-term Governor Tim Pawlenty, 2003-11, who was elected and re-elected after the state’s Jesse Ventura interlude. No doubt Mr. Pawlenty is missing because his Republican party is no longer Dave Mr. Durenberger’s Republican party. If the former senator is too young to have been an Old Guard Republican and too moderate to be an out-and-out liberal Republican, he is also too traditional a Republican to be anything approaching a Tea Party Republican or an evangelical Republican. He is also too “progressive” a Republican to be, heaven forbid, a Trump Republican. Far from a neutral or an abstainer in 2016, Mr. Durenberger waits until the end of his book to reveal that the front yard of his St. Paul home sported a Hillary Clinton lawn sign.

Mr. Durenberger is also something other than either a country club Republican or a Main Street businessman Republican. A product of Benedictine-run St. John’s University of Collegeville, Minnesota (where his father served as athletic director for many years), Mr. Durenberger is perhaps best described as a good government Republican. His sincere Catholicism notwithstanding, Mr. Durenberger is clearly ill at ease with the influx of social issue voters into his party. If being a progressive Republican means not being a libertarian-minded Republican, it also means not being an evangelically inclined Republican.

And yet Mr. Durenberger lauds one of his progressive Republican forbearers, Governor Luther Youngdahl, for his successful campaign against the curse of slot machines in the state. One wonders what a 21st century Governor Youngdahl would do about the proliferation of casinos, lotteries and pornography. And then one wonders what a 21st century Dave Mr. Durenberger would have to say about a (progressive?) Republican party campaign against any or all of the above.

All that can be known is that this self-described progressive Republican has become progressively unhappy with what he takes to be his party’s preoccupation with social issues in general and with the issues of abortion and same sex marriage in particular.

While this book was published earlier in 2018, Mr. Durenberger would no doubt issue an “I told you so” in response to the crushing, across-the-board defeat suffered by the Minnesota GOP in the 2018 mid-term elections. And yet, among the losers was incumbent Republican congressman Erik Paulsen, whose suburban Minneapolis district had been solidly Republican for decades and who comes close to being an exact replica of Mr. Durenberger’s ideal of moderate progressivism. This statewide Republican defeat, by the way, took place in the same red state that Donald Trump nearly carried in 2016.

This defeat and that Clinton lawn sign notwithstanding, Mr. Durenberger continues to call himself as a Republican. He still claims to think that government should be the handmaiden to market forces rather than the driving force behind them. So, by the way, does President Trump. Perhaps even Hillary Clinton would agree, but who knows for sure. In any case, her party is certainly heading in a very different, clearly more statist, direction.

Gone for the foreseeable future is any semblance of a bipartisan consensus on the Mr. Durenberger priority of markets before government, a priority which was once far from his—or his party’s—alone. Not so today, and especially when it comes to Mr. Durenberger’s signature issue of health care. And yet Mr. Durenberger targets Republicans, not Democrats, for abandoning “all semblance of bipartisanship.” Amazingly, he tells us that he was “dismayed” at the GOP role in the 1994 defeat of HillaryCare, which was clearly a step toward a single payer system and a reversal of his priorities. He also faults, Republicans much more than Democrats for the absence of bipartisan support for Obamacare.

This former Republican senator cannot be faulted for not writing a lamentation for the drift of the Democrats to the left. That task will have to be left to someone else. Perhaps a former Democratic senator? Perhaps, say, Joe Lieberman, who might one day pen a part history/part memoir titled “When Democrats Were Liberal.”

In the meantime we are left to wonder why David Mr. Durenberger has drifted in the direction that he has. A faithful Catholic, he should have welcomed pro-life Democrats into his party. More than that, he should now be applauding the fact that his party has become the pro-life party. Instead, he seems quite uncomfortable with this result. The abortion issue is simply in the way. For Mr. Durenberger, this issue is nothing more—and nothing better—than something that is “less pressing” than many other more crucial matters.

Mr. Durenberger also laments the impact of Grover Norquist on his party. As Mr. Durenberger puts it, Norquist “coerced” the GOP into adopting his position on taxes, thereby denying the Republican party “one of government’s most effective problem solving tools.” Taxes, Mr. Durenberger, can also be a problem creating tool.

But the ultimate villain in this story is Donald Trump and his “disconcerting” presidency. Unlike Ronald Reagan, whom Mr. Durenberger supported after his 1980 nomination, but not before, President Trump has doubts about America’s historic greatness. Or at least that is Mr. Durenberger’s claim. Maybe there would be some basis to such a claim, if emblazoned on those red caps were the letters MAG and not MAGA.

Mr. Durenberger also has trouble with Trumpian rhetoric that “smacks of racism.” Examples are left for the reader to provide. Offering himself as a counter example, he assures his readers that after Sunday Mass at his St. Paul parish he seeks to assure Josie Johnson, an icon of the Minnesota civil rights movement, that Donald Trump and a GOP Congress “cannot reverse her life’s accomplishments for civil rights.” Is THAT on President Trump’s wish list? Mr. Durenberger apparently thinks so. But the only example that abounds here is President Trump’s support for voter ID laws, which Mr. Durenberger opposes, but which would only serve to further legitimize, rather than reverse, civil rights gains.

Mr. Durenberger is also troubled by President Trump’s treatment of “undocumented” immigrants upon whose labor “the economy depends.” Really? Despite their “plight,” Mr. Durenberger is convinced that his party is bent on the “denial of government service to immigrants.” That apparently means all immigrants, legal and illegal, documented and undocumented. Given all of this and more, Mr. Durenberger tells us that he now generally votes for Democrats for federal offices. And why not? After all, his views are increasingly indistinguishable from those of the party of which he is not yet a member.

And yet Mr. Durenberger does, in the end, call for a political “devolution,” or a return of power to the states. How voting for Democrats for national office will accomplish this he leaves unexplained. “Perversely,” he concludes, a push for this might come from a reaction to… Trump and his “over-reliance on the federal government.” And not from Obama and his over-reliance on the federal government, not to mention his misuse of executive power? And not from a Democratic party of today that is hurtling in the opposite direction and well away from any devolution?

Whenever the former senator finds an opportunity to indict Republicans he so indicts. Whenever he has an opportunity to indict Democrats he fails to indict. Perhaps that’s what progressive Republicans have always done. Perhaps there was a time in the history of purplish or maroonish Minnesota politics when that approach could land a moderately progressive (or progressively moderate?) Republican politician in the U.S. senate. But those days are long gone. When today’s Minnesota voters are given a choice between two versions of progressivism they will choose the more progressive progressive every time.

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Editor’s note: The featured image of the Minnesota State Capitol building is by McGhiever, and is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

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