It briefly looked as if former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had ruined his career. Just a few years ago Pawlenty was seen as a potential future Bill Clinton for the GOP: the affable governor from a politically challenging region who could make his party more broadly appealing. An evangelical Christian from a working class background, Pawlenty was hailed as the avatar of a GOP more in touch with its downscale, socially conservative white electorate than the corporate plutocrats who have historically ruled it. In 2005 Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, then two rising stars of conservative punditry, wrote a Weekly Standard cover story praising Pawlenty, in a phrase they borrowed from him, as a beacon of the “party of Sam’s Club, not the country club.” In 2008 Pawlenty was one of John McCain’s top choices for the Republican vice-presidential nomination.
So it seemed when Pawlenty started running for president in this election cycle that he had a lot of promise. But his campaign sputtered. He looked weak on the debate stage for refusing to offer the same criticism of Mitt Romney’s healthcare reform that he did in a television interview. After finishing a distant third in the Iowa Straw Poll, an early beauty contest in a neighboring state whose caucus he had to win, Pawlenty dropped out. Had he not run he would have surely been on the vice-presidential shortlist again, but perhaps by running so ineffectually and criticizing Romney he had damaged his brand value.
But now he is back. After quickly endorsing Romney and working hard for him as a surrogate, Pawlenty is in every top pundit’s list of possible vice-presidential candidates. Romney may feel that he needs a Protestant, preferably an evangelical. That gives Pawlenty a leg up over Catholic rivals such as Bobby Jindal, Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie. His humble roots would provide some much needed ballast to Romney’s extremely privileged upbringing and adult life. And he hails from the Upper Midwest, the crucial swing region where Romney must make inroads.
A closer examination, though, show that like putative working-class Republicans before him, such as Mike Huckabee, Pawlenty offers nothing of value to working-class Americans. His proposals are just as plutocratic as those of other Republicans and his appeal outside the Republican base is hardly overwhelming.
Pawlenty’s record as Governor leaves much to be desired. As I explained when it happened last summer, Minnesota’s government shutdown was largely the result of Pawlenty’s policies. Pawlenty refused to raise taxes, and the result was a revenue shortfall. I wrote:
Pawlenty was unable to cut spending sufficiently to balance the budget. Instead, “Pawlenty used every budget gimmick and shift,” says Kristin Sosanie, communications director for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. “He borrowed money from K-12 schools and put off payments to falsely balance the budget.” Specifically, since Minnesota budgets on a biannual cycle, the state had given 90 percent of funding for education to localities in the first year and 10 percent in the second year. Pawlenty shifted the balance to 70-30, making his last budget seem balanced but leaving a $1.4 billion hole in the budget that Governor Mark Dayton is trying to balance now. Other “budgetary duct tape” used by Pawlenty in his last year in office, according to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, includes delaying $152 million in tax refunds. All told, when Pawlenty left office there was a projected $6.2 billion budget shortfall, which Sosanie notes is “the largest in our state’s history and the fourth largest among all states as a percentage of our state budget.”