Calling it Quits

A rebel governor surrenders.


Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura has finally succumbed to politics. When he announced that he didn't intend to run for reelection, he used the most tired, cliched politician's rhetoric imaginable: "I will always protect my family first," he told Minnesota Public Radio.

One could celebrate Ventura's exit from public life and call for more pols to follow his lead. After all, he's done a lot for America as a private citizen (and also as a Navy Seal, an example of non-political public service). Even during his four years in office, he's kept his show on the road with an interview in Playboy, appearances on Tim Russert's Meet the Press and David Letterman, and a tell-all book. He miffed Garrison Keillor (another important public service) and even found the time to moonlight, appearing in an episode of the soap opera The Young and the Restless, refereeing for wrestling, and providing commentary for an upstart, and now defunct, football league.

Ventura could be seen as a good-time governor, who, like stock pickers in the bull market, couldn't go wrong as long as the money kept rolling in. When times got tough, he didn't make tough choices on taxes and spending and work with the legislature to get them enacted. Instead he threw a fit (after the press reported that his son threw parties in the governor's mansion) and has now quit rather than develop a program and take it to the voters.

Ventura was elected in 1998 with 37 percent of the vote. He ran as a middle-of-the-road, common-sense libertarian, a remarkable jumble of contradictions. He mused openly about legalizing prostitution and drugs and explicitly announced "I'm a libertarian" to Jonathan Rauch in a Reason interview. "I've taken the libertarian exam and scored perfect on it."

There are plenty of things that exam didn't cover, however, such as government monopoly schools and public transit–both government expansions that Ventura championed. He discovered this omission at a Cato Institute-sponsored event in Minneapolis. "Isn't it the government's job to provide transportation?" he asked rhetorically, only to be met by a heckler saying "no."

"He then went on the air and said he wasn't a libertarian," says Minnesota state Libertarian Party chair Kevin Houston, who later adds, "If anything, he's a libertine."

Ventura did hew to a balanced-checkbook conservatism, the common-sense notion that says pay your bills with cash on the barrel, avoid credit card balances, and return any extra money to those who sent it. "The knee-jerk temptation is to either cut taxes immediately in permanent ways or make a commitment to new spending," Ventura wrote in a post-election op-ed. "Both are mistakes."

This wait-and-see approach to fiscal policy upset conservatives, who wanted tax cuts to take the money off the table, and liberals, who wanted to spend, spend, spend. His first year, his policy led to no taxpayer rebates. In the next two years taxpayers received rebates dubbed "Jesse checks." This year he faced a yawning deficit, and submitted a proposal that split the difference between tax increases and spending cuts. The legislature ignored him, enacted its own plan, and overrode his veto.

Ventura took hits for failing to take politics seriously and apply himself to the tasks of governing. "He was going to provide an alternative to the two major parties and carve out an identifiable position that he thought most people held, socially liberal or libertarian and fiscally prudent," notes Joseph Kunkel, a professor of political science at Minnesota State University at Mankato. "He really didn't help build a movement. His lack of political experience and interest in politics and the political process meant that he failed to build that third party position and represent it in a coherent way."

Ultimately that may be his legacy. "He really hasn't done anything," says Houston. "Usually when politicians get in office they build something or enact a policy that becomes their legacy. But Jesse hasn't really been a proactive governor. He's been more of a reactive governor, saying no." That alone makes him better than most.