Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published Jan 9, 2003

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

“Liar, liar, pants on fire. Your nose is longer than a telephone wire.”

Good luck Governor Pawlenty! When I broke a promise not to raise taxes back in 1998 a former school board member sent me a heated email with those lyrics in the subject line.

I had promised not to raise taxes if the voters approved an excess levy referendum. The voters did approve the levy but I only kept my promise for one year. The following year, with my promise still in effect, we came within five minutes of a teacher’s strike and severe budget cuts. I chose to maintain our schools rather than honor my pledge

I got some criticism for my vote when I ran for reelection but still won pretty handily. My vote to raise the levy wasn’t even an issue. Why wasn’t I crucified for violating the public’s trust?

Probably because I didn’t violate it. I think the public recognizes a distinction between campaign promises and the moral authority of a promise made to a friend or colleague. Our democratic system was designed to force compromise and I think most voters can forgive an honest effort that falls short. Winning half a loaf isn’t the same as breaking a trust which is so important that it happens to be the first of twelve virtues listed in the Boy Scout Law. It begins, “A boy scout is trustworthy.”

Minnesota’s public certainly understands that the Republican Party approaches public spending with considerable skepticism. They expect Republicans to extol the virtues of limited government and to attack government waste. I suspect Minnesotans will see good faith in Governor Pawlenty’s vow not to raise taxes. They will expect him to match word with deed while in office. I doubt, however, that they’ll expect the impossible from him.

Candidate Pawlenty made a promise not to raise taxes when it seemed imminently doable, back when the state was raking in surpluses. Had he not painted himself into the “no new taxes” corner he could never have won the Republican Party’s endorsement. While some of us were unhappy with the rigidity of the delegates, the state GOP convention did take place before the two billion dollar deficit was projected. Making his promise then didn’t seem so unreasonable and, since I live in a city with an extra high school, I had no doubt that there were other safe cuts to be made across the state.

But that was then. Since his election an insuperable $4.5 billion deficit has been forecast. Closing a few schools will not solve the problem especially with another popular pledge to preserve K-12 spending. Even Houdini’s arms would have been severed had the ropes binding them been pulled tight enough.

As a Republican who voted for Pawlenty despite his promise I’ve been trying to think of graceful arguments to free him from this bind. Here’s an easy one. If politicians are expected to obey the majority then Tim could defer to the sixty percent majority that voted for his two opponents. Both Roger Moe and Tim Penny refused to rule out tax hikes.

If that’s too slick an argument then there’s this. Fighting waste is one thing but eviscerating state services is quite another. Even the great Republican Abraham Lincoln abandoned his platform once events made it necessary to do so.

Lincoln understood that “. . . this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free,” and yet when he campaigned for President in 1860 he didn’t advocate an emancipation proclamation. It would have cost him the election! It was only after he became President that the Civil War made such a proclamation possible, and even necessary. The Proclamation prevented France and England from allying with the South. Still, it was not an easy call. The Proclamation risked mutiny and mass desertion in the Northern armies. Lincoln expected to lose the 1864 election.

Lincoln won his gamble and his reelection. More recent Republicans have fared less well.

In 1988 when the first President Bush campaigned he told his audiences to “Read my lips.” No matter what, he assured voters, he would not raise taxes. Fortunately, Bush was too responsible a President to launch the National Deficit into orbit. But violating his promise prompted the scabrous Pat Buchanan to attack Bush and cost him the election.

I don’t think Pawlenty needs to worry about this happening to him. Many Republican legislators, including House Speaker Steve Sviggum, ignored the no new tax pledge in anticipation of an economic downturn. Republican legislators won’t have much interest in embarrassing one of their own while he’s Governor. In fact, draconian cuts would risk Minnesotans wrath and the labeling of Republican’s as skin flints.

There have been politicians who would rather be right than be elected. We admire them for their integrity and honesty but we rarely elect them and, on the rare occasions when we do elect them, we generally regret it.

For my part, I hope Governor Pawlenty’s lips read like George Bush’s. If they do he can count on my vote again in four years.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at www.snowbizz.com

The first complaint I drew about this somewhat cynical analysis came from the Reader's editor, Richard.