Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The legitimacy hustle

On the surface, this version of a Minnesota recount appears to be proceeding smoothly. Old friends from the respective camps are meeting over ballots. Thousands of election officials and partisan observers are reprising the Franken / Coleman recount with more familiarity and slightly improved rules.

The Minnesota GOP has pursued a two track message. On one hand there are the reasonable and measured tones of Tom Emmer, Eric Magnuson, and Kurt Zellers. They assure us that this is all about ensuring that the will of the people is fairly counted, and that once that's done we can all move on.

On the other hand the bellicose Tony Sutton pops up every so often to remind folks of a possibility of a protracted election contest. Sutton just presided over an incomplete victory in a Republican wave year. The perception that he didn't fight to the bitter end to complete the sweep won't endear him to parts of the GOP activist core still smarting from Franken's victory. Declarations like "we won't be rolled again" and "something doesn't smell right" are for them.

There are political reasons for the GOP to pursue a strategy of contesting the election simply to delay the seating of Governor-elect Dayton. First, delay past January 15th prevents Dayton from using his authority to buy in early to the Medicaid expansion. Second, an election contest provides a platform to agitate for election law changes limiting vouching and requiring voter ID. Third, the prospects of rushing through legislation in Pawlenty overtime would be nearly irresistible for a GOP caucus relishing their newfound majority status.

All that said, stretching out a recount into an election contest would do one thing Republicans do best - deny the legitimacy of Governor-elect Dayton.

Of course, close elections like Franken's make this message easier. But even Obama's legitimacy has been attacked; the traction given by the media to the birth certificate "issue" abetted a thin narrative of illegitimacy. But in every case, the go-to strategy is to start from the premise that every elected Democrat cheated. ACORN, George Soros, busloads of illegal voters, felons, phantom votes and reconciliation are all cut from the same cloth.

Mind you, this is the party of "Sore Loserman," a party that relied on a de novo Supreme Court decision to prevent a recount and won a presidential election by the barest of margins. In the aftermath of the Bush v. Gore decision, Gore gracefully stepped aside to prevent a constitutional crisis. In contrast, Republicans have demonstrated that they will play chicken with the governance of our nation and state.

This strategy of challenging the legitimacy of Democrats dovetails with Republican messages about the scope and trustworthiness of government. And this is why the simple reversal of this strategy by Democrats would fail. Which is too bad, it would be easy to grouse about the 700 votes determining control of the Minnesota House and turn the legitimacy question around.

The moment the State Canvassing Board declares Mark Dayton the Governor-elect, the message must be deafening and completely unified. The people have spoken, and we know what they said. Attempts to play the game of contest for the sake of political advantage must have a significant and obvious political cost. In this election, voters registered their distaste for politics as usual and typical politicians. A transparently political ploy like a foot-dragging election contest won't go over well.

Maybe it's time to reprise the "Sore Loserman" chants. Any ideas for good slogans, readers? Leave them in the comments.

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