“They talk about freedom and values, but they really don't believe in representative government.”

Former Minnesota Senator and lifelong Republican Dave Durenberger on the rise of the new Bush Republicans in Minnesota and elsewhere

DAVE DURENBERGER HAS BEEN OUT of politics for a decade, but that doesn't mean he's been out of policymaking. These days Durenberger chairs the University of St. Thomas's National Institute of Health Policy. Health care was always a hallmark of his political career--which began with him working in the governor's office in the 1960s and continued with his election to the U.S. Senate in 1978. On a recent morning at his office on the school's Minneapolis campus, Durenberger gestured to a framed photo and letter from Ronald Reagan, dated July 1988. Reagan was congratulating Durenberger on his role in passing a Medicare reform bill that provided better catastrophic coverage, as well as support for nursing home care, prescription costs, and extended hospital stays.

"That was the real Medicare law," he says, adding that it was no small victory that Reagan signed the bill and congratulated Durenberger in writing. Durenberger, a Republican, had fought to convince many in his own party that the legislation was needed. He sighs: "It was, of course, repealed the next year."

In 2003 he was appointed head of a health care task force by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and last fall he broke ranks and endorsed John Kerry's health plan over President Bush's. It's this centrist streak that has kept Durenberger off the radar since he left office in 1995. (That, and a denouncement from the Senate for unethical conduct regarding his finances.) In the meantime, his party has become increasingly a vehicle of staunch social conservatism and vehement partisanship. Durenberger, like many members of the old-guard GOP, has been marginalized. "It's a new generation," he shrugs. "Obviously, at my age, I'm not running for anything."

On GWB: "In my view, the problem is a chief executive who will never acknowledge a mistake, an error, or a fault. We saw it in the debates with John Kerry. I don't think the man believes that he's capable of making a mistake."
Bill Kelley
On GWB: "In my view, the problem is a chief executive who will never acknowledge a mistake, an error, or a fault. We saw it in the debates with John Kerry. I don't think the man believes that he's capable of making a mistake."

For Durenberger, who is 70 and lives with his wife in St. Paul, there was more than a little symbolism in the death of former Gov. Elmer Andersen in November. Andersen was a mentor, and the icon of a different era in state Republican politics. His passing represented, in Durenberger's mind, the end of what Durenberger recalls as a long age of bipartisanship on behalf of the public good. Now, as Durenberger and others see it, the GOP is mainly obsessed with building and exerting power.

But he's not just an old fogey bemoaning the rise of political upstarts--Durenberger holds out hope that the pendulum will swing back toward good governance rather than domination at any cost. He talked to City Pages about his misgivings regarding the Bush administration and charted the rise of the social conservatives to a position of dominance in the Minnesota GOP.

City Pages: What do you see as the prevailing themes in the state GOP right now, and of the Republican Party generally?

Dave Durenberger: I think about it periodically when somebody calls me up and says, "Would you endorse my candidacy for office?" As far as endorsing a candidate is concerned, I'm increasingly not sure that I want to do that. My perception is that they seem to be much more wedded to winning in the electoral process and the majority status that the Republicans have, and they haven't ever really thought about their status as the majority party.

The Republicans have never been the majority party, in my lifetime. Even when we've had conservative majorities in the state--we had a conservative Senate in Minnesota from the founding of the state until 1970--we had a minority complex. But the common bond was a respect for the role of government in building a society in the broadest sense. It wasn't the negatives that drive the electoral process today.

We are, as a state, traditionally both conservative and liberal. "Progressive" is a word that's often laid on top of something like that. There had always been this tradition in the public policy I was a part of to add some advantage to the disadvantaged in Minnesota. Whether that was rural people needing access to markets, or all poor and minority kids needing access to schools. Or the whole movement toward identifying mental health in health care policy. We started that movement here. We didn't do it just by talking about it.

Today, though--I'll cite [anti-tax icon] Grover Norquist, who said something to the effect of, "Bipartisanship is like date rape." And that's what drives people now in the [Republican] party. They talk about freedom and values, but they really don't believe in representative government. They don't see that the country ought not to be divided in half. You're just looking at gridlock. I guess I'm a date-raper in the Norquist sense.

I don't know how many times I talked to [the late former governor] Elmer Andersen about this. Drove by Elmer's yard last fall, and all you'd see were signs with Bush X'ed out. I'd say, "Elmer, have you given up on the Republican Party?" And he'd say, "Of course not. This is all evolutionary." Right now we've got what looks to be an exurban, or if you look at it nationally, a south and west party. We've got an antigovernment party--well, selectively antigovernment, obviously.

Even if they say lofty things like "democracy" or whatever it is they say, they don't mean it. I've told Mark Kennedy that. You know, when he was talking about running for the Senate, I said, "You know, Mark, I'm not in the district, but what I remember from your campaign is the negative ads." I've known Patty Wetterling since two days after her child was abducted. And I don't think it was necessary to run that kind of a campaign. And even though he said they weren't his ads, they were from the Republican National Committee.

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