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.”
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Thanks to Pawlenty’s policies, Minnesota lost its Triple AAA bond rating, the very same debacle that Romney routinely attacks President Obama for presiding over nationally.
In terms of his current policy profile, Pawlenty is basically a carbon copy of Romney: someone who showed streaks of moderation when appealing to a more liberal electorate but adopted doctrinaire right-wing extremism on the national stage. During the primaries, Pawlenty’s erstwhile booster Douthat complained that Pawlenty’s budgetary proposals were nothing more than a “Supply-Side Time Warp.”
Douthat wrote: “Most of Pawlenty’s agenda is a mix of ‘half-remembered bits of Reaganism,’ transparent gimmicks (a balanced-budget amendment that caps spending at 18 percent of G.D.P.) and straightforward magical thinking, in which cutting taxes on business, investment and high-earners leads to 5 percent growth every year for a decade—something that neither the Reagan nor the Clinton booms came close to achieving — which in turn goes a long way toward closing the budget deficit, happily, before we have to start in on painful cuts.”
As I wrote back in July, when Pawlenty was running for president he flipped his stance on several major issues to appease the right wing. And he began recalibrating his position rightward while he was still Governor of Minnesota, putting his national ambitions ahead of his state’s best interests, just as Romney did in Massachusetts. I wrote: “Pawlenty is running to the right on every issue. He has completely abandoned and abjectly apologized for his support for cap-and-trade and come out for an aggressively neoconservative foreign policy.” He also vetoed a bill that would have addressed bullying in public schools, and that comported with what he had previously pledged to support, because the religious right feared it would protect gay children.
Nor should Romney count on Pawlenty to deliver Minnesota’s ten Electoral College votes. As I noted in the same piece, Pawlenty never actually won a popular majority in his gubernatorial races. Both times he benefited from the presence of a third-party candidate who drew more from his Democratic opponents than from him. “He never won a mandate,” says Sosanie. “People are not happy with the mess he left us.”
The mess goes deeper than just the budgetary crisis. For decades Minnesota had what was called “the Minnesota Miracle” and the “smart state strategy.” These were bipartisan agreements to amply fund education at all levels. Recognizing that Minnesota could not compete with Sunbelt states on, say, pleasant weather or plenitude of golf courses, they invested in having the most educated workforce to remain economically competitive. In recent years that agreement has been abandoned. In 2001 Minnesota eliminated its “general levy” on property for education funding. The state was supposed to make up the shortfall, but under Pawlenty it never did.
In the long run this could endanger Minnesota’s economic vitality. “There has been a repudiation of a bipartisan agreement for a smart state strategy,” says Larry Jacobs, director of Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “At this point I’m not sure what the distinctive macroeconomic model is for Minnesota. Are we going to compete with Texas? Why are we going to win that battle? People in the business community are wondering that.”
Romney claims that his business experience makes him the best-qualified candidate to be president, so you might think Pawlenty’s record on Minnesota’s budget and economy would concern him. But since Romney’s record in Massachusetts is very similar, it probably won’t hold him back.