Kick Saves in St. Paul

by John J. Miller on August 2, 2009

in Politics

  • Sumo

August 4, 2008

But can Tim Pawlenty put a puck in the Naval Observatory?


Growing up in Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty played a lot of hockey. “I was mostly on defense,” he says. Today, as the state’s Republican governor, he still skates in pick-up games. Around lunchtime on Fridays in the winter, he’s often at a rink. Back at his desk in St. Paul, however, he sometimes feels like a heavily padded goaltender, kicking away bills passed by the Democrats who dominate the statehouse: He vetoed 34 of them in this year’s completed session. “I have strapped on the political goalie equipment,” he said on May 31 at the state GOP convention in Rochester. Then he flashed the red pen that he uses to halt legislation. The partisan crowd acted as if it had just watched Pawlenty make a diving save in sudden-death overtime.

Not all Americans pay as much attention to hockey as Minnesotans, but Republicans around the country have started to take notice of Pawlenty. He has won two gubernatorial elections in a famously liberal state as a self-proclaimed conservative. Just about everyone assumes he’s on John McCain’s vice-presidential short list. For a party that’s looking for new ways to attract voters, Republicans could do a lot worse than this tall and lanky 47-year-old. Even so, Pawlenty can’t quite shake off suspicions about his political principles.

“There are a lot of questions about whether he’s truly a conservative or whether he’s a conservative because he has to be,” says one of Minnesota’s top Republicans. In certain respects, the concern is a surprise: Pawlenty is pro-life and pro-gun, with actual accomplishments in these areas. As governor, he has signed bills requiring waiting periods for abortions and allowing concealed-carry permits for handguns. Yet he’s also made some startling statements. “The era of small government is over,” he declared two years ago, in a newspaper interview. “Government has to be more proactive, more aggressive.”

So just how conservative is this would-be vice president?

Nobody doubts Pawlenty’s determination or focus — after all, this is a guy who runs marathons. (His best time, he says, is 3 hours, 43 minutes.) As an undergraduate in 1982, he held a full-time job in the campaign office of David Durenberger, a Republican senator, while carrying a full course load at the University of Minnesota. He went on to earn his law degree there and began climbing the political ladder.

He joined the planning commission in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan and then won election to its city council. He captured a seat in the state legislature in 1992 and eventually became the majority leader. “He’s very smart and disciplined,” says former Democratic congressman Tim Penny, who ran in the 2002 governor’s race as the chosen successor of Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler. “He’s a natural politician. I compare him favorably to Bill Clinton in his ability to grasp the details of policy and convey them to voters.”

Pawlenty won that three-way 2002 gubernatorial race with 44 percent of the vote. In 2006, he won reelection by a single percentage point, gaining 47 percent in another tough three-way contest, in a year that saw plenty of other Republicans in Minnesota and elsewhere get booted from office. “People just want to vote for him,” says John Hinderaker, a Minnesota Republican who helps run the popular Power Line blog. “He has what advertisers would call a high Q Score — he’s just fundamentally likable, in a way that has nothing to do with checking boxes on political issues.” In May, Pawlenty enjoyed an approval rating of 54 percent.

The first time he ran for governor, he had to win the GOP nomination over Brian Sullivan, whom many Republicans regarded as the more conservative candidate. During that race, Pawlenty came up with his most memorable quote: “We need to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.” On one level, the line was meant as a swipe at Sullivan, a wealthy businessman. Yet Pawlenty insists that there was more to it: “It wasn’t about class warfare. It was about building on a base and growing it to include Reagan Democrats.”

Pawlenty himself is a product of the working class. His father was a truck driver and his mother a housewife who died when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five kids and the first to go to college. “There weren’t many yuppies or metrosexuals on the block where he grew up in South St. Paul,” says Mitch Pearlstein of the Center of the American Experiment, a free-market think tank in Minneapolis. Raised a Catholic, Pawlenty married a Baptist, Mary Anderson, who was until recently a district-court judge. They attend a megachurch whose senior pastor, Leith Anderson (no relation), is head of the National Association of Evangelicals.

It remains to be seen whether Sam’s Club Republicanism will become anything more than a slogan. In Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have tried to construct a political strategy around the phrase. Pawlenty says he hasn’t read their book yet, but he agrees that Republicans must do a better job of appealing to working-class voters: “People who shop at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart want value, which ties into the Republican message of reform, accountability, and limited government.” After singing the praises of these low-price merchants, Pawlenty points out that consumers can get good deals at Target, too. “It’s a Minnesota company,” he says with a smile.

As a state lawmaker, Pawlenty played a leading role in shepherding tax cuts through the legislature. As governor, he has tried to protect these gains. “Our goal was to get the state out of the top ten in taxes and we did it,” he says. In 1997, according to the Tax Foundation, Minnesota had the country’s fourth-worst state-and-local-tax burden. Last year, it was eleventh.

None of this was inevitable. When he became governor, Pawlenty’s first task was to eliminate a budget deficit of more than $4 billion. “It was a huge problem and everybody was calling on him to raise taxes,” says Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “But he held out — his record on taxes and spending has been phenomenal.” Through a mix of reduced spending and accounting maneuvers, he changed the deficit into a surplus. The Cato Institute — always a tough grader in its fiscal-policy report card on governors — gave him a B.

Two years later, Minnesota faced another crunch — and Pawlenty arguably caved in on his promise not to raise taxes when he agreed to slap a new “health-impact fee” on cigarettes. It came after a partial government shutdown, which lasted several days due to a deadlock with Democrats in the state legislature. “I didn’t think it was a good idea, but we had to compromise to end a difficult situation for my state,” says Pawlenty. The Cato Institute lowered his grade to a C. One of the governor’s most outspoken critics at the time was David Strom, now with the Minnesota Free Market Institute, a think tank. “The cigarette tax was a mistake, but Pawlenty’s overall record on taxes is quite good,” he says. “If I were grading him on fiscal policy, I’d give him a B-plus or an A-minus.”

Pawlenty has called for aggressive tax-limitation measures, such as a law that would prevent the state government from expanding faster than the combined rates of inflation and population growth. So far, this remains a far-off fantasy — and in recent months, Pawlenty has reverted to the role of goalie. In February he vetoed a tax hike, including an 8.5-cent boost in the gas tax. But the Democrat-controlled legislature, with an assist from a few renegade Republicans, overrode him. Pawlenty did manage a small victory in the spring, when Minnesota capped property-tax increases over the next three years.

Despite this, some conservatives have no trouble compiling a list of gripes about Pawlenty’s tenure: He proposed to open a state-run casino near the Mall of America; he signed a bill than bans smoking in public places, including private restaurants; and he championed a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins baseball team, in a public-subsidy deal that hikes the sales tax in Hennepin County. Although he has vetoed legislation that would increase the minimum wage, he has also signaled his willingness to approve a bill that would boost it, just not quite as high as Democrats want. As head of the National Governors Association, he called on the Bush administration to expand children’s health-care coverage. Questioned about this, Pawlenty has said that he was speaking for the NGA and not necessarily for himself, though this seems awfully close to a distinction without a difference.

Pawlenty met McCain in the late 1980s, when he and his wife drove the senator around Minnesota to various events. Although he backed George W. Bush over McCain eight years ago, Pawlenty endorsed McCain in 2006 — early in the current cycle. “History calls out leaders,” he says. “These times are calling him out.”

In certain respects, Pawlenty might be described as a McCain Republican, which explains why conservatives are uneasy. He’s open to a cap-and-trade regime for greenhouse gases, and he pushed for the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada. On biofuels he’s actually to McCain’s left, having advocated ethanol mandates in Minnesota’s gas pumps. But on the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, he says, “If I were in the Senate, I don’t think I would have supported it. It’s a matter of sequencing. The McCain-Kennedy bill is reasonable, but only after we control the border and win the confidence of the American people.”

Geography is one of the main arguments for putting Pawlenty on the GOP ticket. While Minnesota hasn’t given its electoral votes to a Republican since Richard Nixon carried 49 states in 1972, the last two elections were tantalizingly close: 51–48 percent for John Kerry in 2004 and 48–46 percent for Al Gore in 2000. On the other hand, most polls show Barack Obama with a big lead over McCain in Minnesota, and Pawlenty’s support couldn’t propel McCain to victory in February’s GOP caucuses: Mitt Romney won, with McCain a distant second. Still, Obama might stumble in rural areas that normally lean Democratic, and the Democrats’ likely choice of comedian Al Franken as their senatorial candidate has a lot of Republicans snickering. The table could be set for an upset.

Would Pawlenty consider joining McCain’s ticket? “I don’t have designs on that, but I’m honored to have my name mentioned,” he says. “I have no reason to believe I’m being vetted. Nobody has asked me to submit any information.” If he is being vetted, the McCain campaign will discover that the governor once promised to serve the entire four years of his second term. It’s the kind of pledge that voters might forgive him for breaking, though it could also conflict with McCain’s reputation for straight talk.

One Minnesota Republican finds the governor’s goalie metaphor amusing. “The thing you have to remember about goalies is that they may block shots, but they never score,” he says. That’s almost true. A handful of times in NHL history, a goalie has put the puck in the other team’s net. More often, goalies earn assists for making passes on scoring plays. McCain may decide that he needs exactly this kind of helper as his campaign enters its third and final period.

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