A Closer Look at Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty, a two-term Republican governor who hails from a state with a history of supporting liberal Democrats, surprisingly finished in a virtual tie for second in a 2012 Presidential straw poll conducted at the “Values Voter Summit,” an influential gathering of socially conservative activists.  He has previously served as head of the National Governors Association.  This month, he formed a national PAC for increasing his influence in electing Republicans nationwide, with the support of many of the key political advisors to George W. Bush and John McCain. It’s time for American conservatives to take a closer look at Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

On October 3 at the Minnesota Republican State Party Convention in Saint Paul, Pawlenty’s speech was very warmly received by the delegates, in a manner equaled only by the speech from Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Though in the past Pawlenty has not been afraid to mention God or prayer in his speeches, he really put God at the forefront of his speech to the delegates:  “First and foremost, we should take time to thank and acknowledge God . . . Do not flinch from that or be bashful about it.  It’s in the founding documents of [our state and nation].”  The speech also sounded some fiscally-conservative themes:  “From 1960 until when I took over as Governor [in 2003], the average two-year increase in our state’s biennial budget was 19 percent . . . The rate of growth in the state budget for the last seven years is now below the rate of inflation . . The state’s budget never went down in real terms until now [with the $2.7 billion of unallotments that resolved the budget deficit left at the end of the legislative session]. . . Mr. President, stop taxing the American people into oblivion, stop spending them into bankruptcy, and the next time you have a chance to address the young people of America, maybe you should apologize for dumping this crushing amount of debt on [them].”

Pawlenty also included some remarks on foreign policy as well:  “We now live in a country where the French President is lecturing the United States on the dangers of appeasement.  Does anything seem strange to you about [that]?  Are you concerned that we are now so far in debt, beholden to China,  . . . that we can’t even ask for their help in putting pressure on Iran?”

He reminded the delegates that over the last three years he has set a record for the most vetoes by a Minnesota Governor, and promised that he “will have the veto pen warmed up and ready to go” for next year as well.

If people around the country wonder why a lot of “movement” conservatives outside Minnesota have not yet attached themselves to the Pawlenty campaign, it could be because Pawlenty’s roots and record don’t point to him being a leader for conservatives, something that talk-show host Jason Lewis conveyed quite effectively last year in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.

Tim Pawlenty spent his formative years in politics working for moderate former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger and as a nondescript suburban city official.  While in the Minnesota House, he compiled a slightly-above-average voting record and a knack for using quotable sound bites to point out the biggest excesses of the liberal Democrat-Farmer-Labor party.  During his first term as Governor, he didn’t challenge the liberal establishment much except on tax-burden issues and for the signing of pro-life initiatives.  Instead, he often cooperated to enact establishment-driven initiatives such as huge bonding bills, big stadium subsidies, light-rail and commuter-rail subsidies, environmentalist mandates, and a minimum-wage hike. 

Since he narrowly was re-elected against a candidate who self-destructed in the closing days of the 2006 campaign that also saw the Republicans lose control of the Minnesota House, Pawlenty has become much more aggressive in using the veto to gut the liberals’ proposals on taxes and spending.   Also, in 2008, he vetoed an attempt to require the state’s minimum wage be indexed to automatically increase at the rate of inflation.

If not for the prodigious list of “green” environmentalist policies and nanny-state regulations he has continued to promote and sign into law, Pawlenty could have built up more bona fide conservative credentials by now.  While he was head of the National Governors Association, he worked with Democratic governors to promote a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions coupled with more “renewable-energy” requirements.  He also helped persuade his fellow Midwestern governors to pursue a regional “cap-and-trade” initiative.  However, some of the environmental activists are now accusing him of abandoning his earlier efforts, which a key advisor to the Governor has rebutted by saying that the worsened economic climate has forced a priority shift toward focusing on the economic impacts of all policies.

Still, in his second term as governor, Tim Pawlenty has signed off on and promoted strict “renewable” energy mandates, and signed laws creating a “Green Jobs Task Force” and a “Greenhouse Gas Advisory Group.”  He pushed for and signed a statewide ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and most “public areas.” He expanded bureaucratic powers as a response to the threat of pandemics, authorized bonding to acquire more parkland and light-rail-routes, banned service fees and expiration dates on gift cards, instituted more mandates for the use of child booster seats, gave law enforcement the authority to pull over and issue a ticket for anyone not wearing a seatbelt, and made Minnesota the first state in the nation to cave in to the alarmists and ban the use of BPA plastic in products intended for small children. He did not oppose the successful effort last year to pass a referendum to raise Minnesota’s sales tax and dedicate the increase to “legacy” projects for the arts and environment.

What likely sounded new to many of the delegates was a large section of Pawlenty’s speech that evoked Reaganesque, libertarian rhetoric on the dangers of incremental bureaucratic growth and the importance of free markets and individual responsibility.  Previously, his remarks about Minnesota’s high taxes and spending have been couched in technocratic terms of how they affect its competitive status with other states and countries.  Talking about smaller government as an end in itself is new territory for him. 

Contrast Pawlenty’s record on regulations and bureaucracy with this bold rhetoric:  “It really boils down to those who believe in freedom, individual responsibility and opportunity, those who believe in markets and the growth of private enterprise versus those who believe in the growth of government . . . Each day in Washington in all those massive buildings, . . .  and in all the state capitals around the country, you have enormous amounts of bureaucracy, mostly growing little by little, and each increment that it grows . . . represents one more increment of individual responsibility taken away, individual freedom taken away, one more increment of government encroaching into the private sector and private enterprise, one more discouragement to people who would like to start something and be entrepreneurs, and that encroachment then dispirits them, . . . one more encroachment into the areas that used to be served by places of worship or nonprofit organizations or charitable organizations subsumed by government.  Each one of those increments is one more corrosive step that undermines the foundations and pillars of what the Founders said was the most important part of our country,  . . . liberty and freedom.”

Following in the footsteps of other potential 2012 Republican Presidential contenders such as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, Pawlenty’s new PAC is pushing the freedom message.  In the online mission statement for his Freedom First PAC, which is co-chaired by Washington lobbyist and ex-Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, Pawlenty tries to be on the cutting edge of the advocates for less government:  “Little by little, [the Federal bureaucracy] suffocates individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the free market . . . We need to protect the freedom to be an entrepreneur without being stifled by over-burdensome taxes and regulations.”

How can this incongruity between Pawlenty’s records and rhetoric be explained?  Part of it must be tactical, since Pawlenty and his advisers surely realize that for the coming electoral cycle the grassroots Republican base is searching for a candidate who is prepared to advocate for conservative principles and ideals. While Pawlenty had enough establishment support in Minnesota to occasionally discount the value of grassroots-conservative opinions, he does not have the financial connections or Bush-style family pedigree to be that type of candidate nationwide. And by highlighting his record as a social conservative and more prominently featuring socially-conservative rhetoric in his stump speech, he can appeal as a new face to fans of Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin who are nevertheless worried that the quote trails and negative perceptions of those two will be too difficult to overcome in a general election.  Maybe some of the new rhetoric is a genuine reaction to what he has learned from travels to areas of the country where political conservatism is not out of character, in contrast to the home state that has voted for every Democratic Presidential nominee since 1976.