Good Government = Bad Politics?

All year, I've kept one eye on the Minnesota governor's race. Not because it's one of the closest in the country -- although there is ...
by | November 3, 2006 AT 3:00 AM

Peterhutch_1 All year, I've kept one eye on the Minnesota governor's race. Not because it's one of the closest in the country -- although there is that -- but because the third party candidate, Peter Hutchinson, is someone who has visited us here on the 13th Floor and whose ideas I have followed.

Hutchinson, a former state finance commissioner, has been a successful public policy consultant. When I have encountered innovative policy ideas in recent years in places like Washington and Iowa, Hutchinson's fingerprints were much in evidence. ( excerpted a book he coauthored with his old partner David Osborne called The Price of Government .)

For his gubernatorial run, Hutchinson emphasized the basics of government, in terms of budget priorities and the like, arguing that too much energy was expended fighting over wedge social issues with only a tertiary relationship to a state's operations.

Needless to say, his campaign was doomed from the start.

For one thing, Minnesota's flirtation with third-party candidates is a thing of the past. Jesse Ventura served only one term. Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman, was polling well on Ventura's line four years ago, but his campaign collapsed at the end. (Penny finished with 16 percent.)

The reason was that state politics took on a highly-charged partisanship following the airplane crash that killed Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, leading to an ugly and partisan memorial service. People became either a D or an R, and the Rs prevailed, taking the governorship and Wellstone's Senate seat in 2002.

Now Hutchinson has been reduced to the sad but classic role of third party candidate. Namely, he can only be a spoiler, costing one of the major party candidates the win.

Third party candidates, when they can't win, can still sometimes serve a useful function, bringing up ideas that had been ignored and having their proposals absorbed by the eventual winners. That was true even of Ross Perot, whose insistence on a balanced budget helped make that idea fashionable in Washington, for a brief time.

That role could have suited Hutchinson, if he had chosen one or two ideas to push hard, forcing his opponents at least to address these issues. But Hutchinson's ideas never seemed to have such resonance. Reading a fairly friendly story in today's St. Paul Pioneer Press suggests one reason why. Here's the paper's summation of Hutchinson's platform:

"He is also driven by a deep-seated belief that he can fix public problems. Of all the candidates, he has drafted the most comprehensive plans for improving the quality of education, reducing health care costs, building more roads and mass transit, and cleaning up the air and waters."

By not finding a way to package his wonky ideas in an easily digestible manner, Hutchinson ended up not only being basically irrelevant. Ultimately, his campaign has the unfortunate resonance of suggesting that concentrating too much on the intricacies of government is no way to run for governor.