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

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

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 He sighs: "It was, of course, repealed the next year."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."

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.

CP: This is the focus on winning elections, the electoral process, that you're talking about.

Durenberger: Right, and the same thing is going to go on more. Destroying people and tearing down reputations and whatnot. They'll wrap it in things like "values." There are ways to package negativism that work, but it's still negative.

CP: Isn't it a basic tenet of good governance that you reserve the right to change your mind? The Bush administration is very good at sticking to their side of a particular issue, but is that good governance?

Durenberger: In my view, the problem is a chief executive who will never acknowledge a mistake, an error, or a fault. Talking about leadership is not leadership. Leadership is not just success winning the seat of the president.

From the time he was governor, and a presidential candidate, he said he never once--never once--gave a second thought to any Texan that he sent to be executed. I've got concerns about that kind of person as a leader. To never, ever give a second thought to that sort of thing.

We saw it in the debates with John Kerry. I don't think the man believes that he's capable of making a mistake. Even though he's made them in his personal life and acknowledged them in his personal life. When I say that to somebody, they say, "Well, you know the way the system works in America is that you say you made a mistake and the other side is all over you." My answer to that is, "That's America. That is representative democracy." Because at some point, if you don't acknowledge mistakes, they're gonna come back and haunt you. I mean, that's just history. I'm not saying it'll happen on Bush's watch, [but] it will come back to haunt us.

We use the words "national security" to justify absolutely everything that goes on in this country. And that's not American. But that's the track [Bush] is on.

CP: How did the rise of social conservatives in the party come about in Minnesota?

Durenberger: There's been a 30-year transformation of the GOP, I think, that goes back to Roe v. Wade. At that time, there were plenty of pro-life Democrats who suddenly had nowhere to go. [Abortion rights] became part of the Democratic platform. So there became this growing influence the Republicans sought over the pro-life vote. Then came this grassroots mailing machine. Jesse Helms was one of the first to tap into it, along with the Catholic Church. Soon this issue was the issue in every local election, from Congress down to the school board. And then that sort of mentality spread to other issues, like prayer in school and gay marriage. So you had a number of people entering into politics who made some kind of name recognition on those issues. And it was largely dictated by the religious. So you get people like Michele Bachmann or Mary Kiffmeyer or Mark Kennedy, who have made themselves known in communities by their stances on those issues.

There used to be those of us who might consider themselves progressive pro-lifers, people who were looking for root causes, people who would support Title X funding, including money to Planned Parenthood, things like that. If no one wants an abortion, then what is it that compels them? If you ever did a really good analysis of that, you'd probably broaden the social agenda.

CP: But it's not even talked about in those terms.

Durenberger: No, it can't be talked about like that. You've got to be pro or con.

The excesses of liberalism obscured the wonderful things about it. Most Republicans won't do this, but you need to read Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat to understand some of the good things that came from liberalism.

CP: You like that book. What is it about that book specifically that grabs you?  

Durenberger: It's the tolerance for, the thriving in, and the respect for diversity. Because this nation, of all the nations in the world, is the most diverse. It's hard to believe you would visit a representative democracy on this diverse of a society. But we've done it. We have taken this incredibly diverse society of immigrants from all over the world, rich and poor, and religions from all over the world. And we visit upon that a bill of rights and separation of power and stuff like that. It's true when people say, "It's the greatest nation on earth, blah, blah, blah," but what they don't understand now is that it's this incredible diversity and the celebration of it that made that so.

David Brooks writes about exurbanites, the people beyond the suburbs, using the analogy of golf. Their life needs to be like a golf course, where all the grass is clean, and cut to the same size, and the sand traps are all edged appropriately. That's the way they live, that's the way of a growing number of Americans. They want to go to churches where people are just like them, and go to malls that serve people and lifestyles just like them. This is Brooks's characterization, not mine. Increasingly, people want to vote for people who look like them, talk like them, and think like them. They go to church on Sunday, and they want to vote for somebody who talks to them the way the preacher does.

And what Keillor is saying is, "You know, you guys wouldn't have those opportunities. Your girls wouldn't be playing for national basketball championships and things like that. You wouldn't have 911 to call to save your kids' life or your own life, if there hadn't been Democrats or liberals fighting for those things." Those are some of the examples he uses. And he's right.

He's really saying, Give credit where credit is due. And there's a value in universities, there is a value to big old cities. There's a value to the Hmong or whomever. Here they are. And there's a value in that that doesn't exist in the golf course community, where everybody is the same. You can't possibly say you can represent everybody in your district, everybody in your state, everybody in your nation if have this golf course community mentality.

CP: You and Arne Carlson used to be the faces of the Minnesota Republican Party, but there's no room for you in the party anymore.

Durenberger: Well, I think that's true. I could not get endorsed. It's a different generation. You're going to keep creating the more dogmatic [brand of politics] for some period of time, until you run into crisis conditions. It might come internationally, or it could come in this country. I cannot predict where it will come. It could be the deficit; it could be the value of the dollar. It's likely to come in the economy.

CP: Are there old-guard Republicans going along with this because at the end of the day they'll get no new taxes and smaller government, regardless of the other costs?

Durenberger: Basically they can't challenge it. There's no way an [Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter can take this one on. There's no way a [Indiana Sen.] Dick Lugar can take this one on. Or [Virgina Sen.] John Warner. They can't do it and keep their jobs.

I saw John Warner take on Oliver North in our caucus, so I know where John Warner comes from. He is not a right-wing, national security über alles kind of guy. John is a moderate, like I am. But John values his role in our national security policy. As does Dick Lugar, who is another moderate. And guys like [Nebraska Sen.] Chuck Hagel. He'll be popular on television shows, and he'll be admired by those of us who admire independence. But he's not going to be a factor. John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, people like that, will not be factors. They will have an influence in some parts of the Republican Party....

CP: But their influence is so much window dressing when you talk about the inner workings of the party at this point.

Durenberger: Yeah.

CP: We've been talking about what amounts to a decline in the traditional role of government. How did the old idea get hijacked?

Durenberger: It was hijacked by a combination of things. I mentioned Roe v. Wade. And by a negative vision of the future, best portrayed by the no-new-taxes vision. That's not a vision, because it doesn't bring people together. It started in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, with the notion of getting government off our backs and out of our lives. The idea was, don't give them [government] any money, and they won't have any to spend.  

At the same time, you saw the rise of people like Mitch Pearlstein and Center of the American Experiment. That became just a negative way of defining government. It's a tool to get attention. Mitch is a thought leader; Mitch is not a politician. He gets [Norm] Coleman and Vin Weber on the podium, putting ideas out there. It's the same role from [former state GOP chair Bill] Cooper, [current GOP chair Ron] Eibensteiner, and groups like the Taxpayers League.

But here's the catch. Those are the people who have, in effect, rescued the party because they brought money to the party. When I came in, in the '60s, the party had a broad fundraising mechanism. We had a door-to-door network and a wide fundraising reach that would drive the Democrats crazy. We would go out debating policy: Should we have outcome-based education standards or should we have a Met Council? It was legitimate debate.

By the '70s and into the '80s, the single-issue dominance of the so-called platform changed that. You had to stand for these things to get endorsed, and that drove a lot of people out of the party. If you felt like it was useless to go to precinct caucuses, then you felt it was useless to give them money. So, when Rudy [Boschwitz] and I were in office, the party collapsed financially.

Rudy and I used to say, let them go bankrupt, and reform the party, and bring all kinds of different Republicans in. That never happened. Rudy tried to raise money, but it didn't happen. Then it evolved into what we would call the conservative business people. Not the conservatives of old who worked at General Mills or 3M. These were people you didn't know, people who weren't active in the community, who inherited their money or made their own from scratch. And these people wanted to get government off their backs and restore some kind of values to society. And suddenly that meant working and investing in schools--but not public schools, private and charter schools. And then there was the rise of faith-based enterprise. Then, as I mentioned before, everybody was going to the evangelical churches to get a political base.

This has happened nationally, but it's synonymous with what's happened in this community: There's the new people with money. [In Minnesota] there's a group of business people who've been meeting for 15 years, who talk about giving money to certain Republicans. But it's a very conservative group that's played a role in the last seven, eight, nine campaigns. I know Gil Gutknecht has gone to them looking for financial support and they say, "No, first we need this, this, and this." Money talks in politics today.

Elmer Andersen endorsed Ann Wynia rather than Rod Grams for my seat. At the time, I was working for Rod, and I went to Elmer and said, "What's going on here?" Elmer said, "Would you tell me one thing that man has done for the community?" And he meant something that was about giving advantage to the disadvantaged. The idea was that giving builds character, and that community involvement was key to entering politics and understanding how policy could be shaped. We're talking volunteering here, and service. And not just in the church.

CP: There's a slew of Republican candidates and officeholders in Minnesota who put their religious beliefs front and center in their public life.

Durenberger: Yep. It's television. Televised evangelism. Do they all come from their own churches and such? Yes. But look. I have very strong feelings about faith as a motivator. You can have your faith, and you can't just check it at the door when you go to work, but there's got to be enough respect to keep it out of what you do. When you start to rely on The Book to set policy, I begin to have a problem with that. I can't handle that one, the business of legislating your faith.

CP: Isn't there political expediency involved for some of the people pushing a religious agenda in politics?

Durenberger: It's political necessity. I had a conversation with Randy Johnson, the chairman of the board of Hennepin County, eight or ten years ago. Remember in our sort of young Republican days, the power structure was MAC: The Minnesota Association of Commerce and Industry was aligned with Republicans. The AFL-CIO was aligned with Democrats. If you wanted to get elected on either side, you go to one of those, the MAC or the AFL-CIO. I said, "Where do you go today?" And he said, "You go to an evangelical church." The power structure has changed.  

And there's the What Would Jesus Do platform.

CP: How durable is that as a political platform?

Durenberger: It's not. It won't last. It can't last. It's not foundational as far as America is concerned; it's not foundational as far as representative democracy is concerned. You can bring your faith to your life and your work, but that should also include respect for other people and respect for other opinions. You know, love your fellow man and all of that. But what you see [from religious conservatives in politics] are the dictates, and the things those same people are doing to people they consider to be their opponents.

I think the kind of evangelical politics we're talking about finds it much easier to raise money and define politicians on black-and-white issues. Other issues are a little more difficult. Health, education, welfare--you don't debate whether people should have access to health care. That debate is about how to get people there. Abortion, on the other hand, or the death penalty: very clear. You are either with us or against us. You're with What Would Jesus Do, or you're not.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >