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Tim Pawlenty: The manufactured candidate

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has based his presidential campaign on truth-telling and toughness, and likes to talk about his pro-life credentials. But there are some problems with that version of the story.

Shawn Lawrence Otto
Courtesy of Shawn Otto
Shawn Lawrence Otto

I’ve known Pawlenty since he was a young Republican state representative from Eagan, Minn.  We had some of the same friends and used to golf together once in a while. His campaign treasurer was my accountant. And Pawlenty told me then that “personally,” he was pro-choice.

This was the late 1990s. A House seat was opening up in a northern Washington County district, which leaned Republican, and I was thinking about running for it, so Tim and I had lunch on the patio of St. Paul’s W.A. Frost & Company to discuss it. My great-great-uncle had founded the Minnesota Republican Party, so I had some family affiliation. As an entrepreneur I was fiscally conservative in the sense that I sought to maximize efficiency and performance. Plus, a Democrat probably wouldn’t have a good chance in the area, which would one day become Michele Bachmann’s home state Senate district.

Pawlenty is a very talented guy, and I respected his opinion. His first question was, “What’s your position on choice?” I hadn’t ever been asked the question quite so pointedly. “You’ve got to take a stand on that first,” he said. “Well,” I said, “OK. I don’t like abortion; I think it’s a really tough personal decision, but not something the government should be getting into one way or the other, so I guess I’m pro-choice.”

He looked at me over his lunch and said, “Well personally, so am I, but here’s the thing. You’ve got to find a way to get your mind around the language of saying ‘pro-life.’ It’s in how you phrase it.”

I’ve since learned I’m not the only one Pawlenty has said this to.

The closet moderate
Parsing semantics and taking a stand seemed to me like two very different things. But to Pawlenty, the closet moderate, they had become one and the same, and this has come to define his political career.

Tim Pawlenty
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Tim Pawlenty

I asked Sarah Stoesz, the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, her impressions of Pawlenty’s closeted pro-choice “stance.” She reminded me how “he turned away federal funds for abstinence-only sex education before he got the right-wing religion bug,” and says “he even supported a special, one-time $1 million appropriation for family planning back when he had some true common sense.” 

This integrity issue doesn’t seem to bother Pawlenty the way it bothers me. He’s wanted to be president for as long as I’ve known him, and ambition can cause principles to take a back seat. He has shown a similar cynicism in his more recent about-faces on climate change and health care, stunning many Minnesotans and former allies and causing some to wonder: Do you really have to sell your soul to succeed in Republican politics? 

Brawny has the strength you expect for those demanding jobs
This facility lends considerable irony to Pawlenty’s political autobiography, “Courage to Stand.” That irony is contained not only in the title but in the cover photo, which features an apparently doctored image of a barrel-chested Pawlenty, tough as a lumberjack from the Northwoods, and so strikingly similar to the Brawny Man paper towels logo that people started calling him “Scrawny Man.”

The Brawny brand implies qualities Pawlenty describes in himself on the campaign trail: strength, fortitude, toughness. But the image, like the candidate’s persona, is manufactured. In reality, Tim is a likable but often sarcastic, snarky, slender attorney who prefers dark suits, and looks somewhat less brawny — closer to Dennis Kucinich, perhaps, than the Brawny Man.

Pawlenty used a similar tactic in the video announcing his exploratory committee.

The video has Pawlenty in a macho-looking beige jacket that appears to be copying the one Scott Brown famously trademarked while campaigning during his special Massachusetts Senate race, a move Minnesotans, who know Pawlenty doesn’t dress like that, found amusing.

Cynical pandering is the stuff of political cliché. But some Pawlenty observers think he is overeager to abandon principles, positions, allies and identity to curry favor. This is mystifying since he has talent if he would just be himself. Since he is marketing himself for president as a truth teller who has the courage to stand, the question becomes important. Which version of Pawlenty is the real one: the one he projects, or that of his critics, old and new?

Consider this almost unbelievable example. Pawlenty is speaking at a Republican Party gathering in Iowa – but with a Southern accent.

It’s hard to understand why he would do this. It seems almost self-destructive in its potential to turn him into a laughingstock. It’s true that, like most leading Republicans, Pawlenty was raised in the South – South St. Paul, Minn., that is. Affecting a Southern accent in Iowa of all places seems especially odd. Iowans don’t talk like that, so it’s not as if he was trying to fit in. And they know Pawlenty was the governor of Minnesota — immediately to their north. One listener could only suppose he was trying to sound like George W. Bush. Really?

I remember returning from a Texas vacation as a kid. I nursed a drawl that made me feel like a cowboy. But I was a kid, not a serious candidate for president of the United States. What seems natural in a young boy whose identity is just forming is concerning, even mind-boggling, in someone running for the most powerful job on the planet.

Kissing the rings
Arne Carlson, the well-loved Republican former governor of Minnesota, sees Pawlenty’s cynical and sometimes baffling approach to politics as evidence of integrity sacrificed on the altar of ambition, and a lack of an internal compass. 

“On the day before the GOP Convention,” Carlson told me, “my wife and I were driving in Southern Minnesota and listening to Gary Eichten of MPR interviewing Pawlenty and (Brian) Sullivan – both Gubernatorial contenders. At one point, Eichten asked Pawlenty if he were a Carlson moderate. The reply was absolutely not – no – Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan were identical in their (far right) social views.

“A day or so following the convention, Pawlenty and a young aide came to my business office for a visit. Pawlenty was gleeful over his victory and declared he could now move to the middle. I reminded him of the radio broadcast and he turned very sober. I then asked how he could move to the middle after he ‘kissed the rings’ of the far right. It was at that point that the reality sunk in.” 

Paper prisoner
Carlson’s point is especially well-taken in a run for president. The president is subject to immense pressures from all angles, ranging from special interests to foreign powers. Pawlenty’s readiness to sacrifice principles for favor, to get his “mind around the language,” to project a manufactured image or deliver a major speech with an affected drawl, to kiss the rings, could perhaps limit his ability to think and act independently, and make him vulnerable to capture by whatever special-interest group appeals most forcefully. 

That happened when the Taxpayers League of Minnesota was implementing Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge and Pawlenty signed it days before the GOP endorsing convention to curry favor with the far right, in the same way that he had gotten his mind around the language on abortion. But after he was elected the pledge captured him. TLM’s then-leader, David Strom, came to be known in some policy circles as the shadow governor and at times arguably wielded more power over the legislative process than Pawlenty did. 

Pawlenty’s response was, once again, to finesse the semantics. A new cigarette tax became a “health impact fee.”  He raised other “fees” and cut intergovernmental aid, forcing local governments and school districts to raise property taxes and levies to pay for services and schools that were previously funded by the state, arguing that the new taxes were their fault, not his.

Tax chart

Ronald Reagan once said that another way to spell “fee” is T-A-X. Pawlenty’s semantical arguments were contradicted by that Republican axiom, and his claims of holding the line on taxes are contradicted by the math put out by his own administration. Consider the following chart – derived like similar ones in this piece from Minnesota Management and Budget’s Price of Government report, released while Pawlenty was still governor, which tracks the percentage taxes take out of total Minnesota income – this one comparing property and income taxes:

Tax chart

Pawlenty used short-term accounting shifts and semantic gimmicks to balance the budget over and again in a sort of bubble-gum-and-baling-wire approach to keep the old jalopy going until the economy improved or he got out of office. The tactic struck many finance experts as dishonest and caused former republican and democratic finance commissioners to join forces in criticizing the patches, which included raiding the state’s $1 billion tobacco settlement fund, the shift of $1.9 billion in school funding from before to after July 1, shifting it technically into the next biennium and effectively borrowing it from the schools, as well as accounting practices no business executive could get away with, such as accounting for inflation on the revenue side of the budget but not the expense side. 

Carlson reminds readers of his blog that Moody’s lowered Minnesota’s bond rating as a result of Pawlenty’s actions.

In the end, property taxes soared 102 percent, as Minnesota’s state auditor Rebecca Otto points out.

Revenue chart

“Fees” and tuition soared as well, and a structural hole was left in the state budget for others to fill.

Tuition chart

The result was a hollowing out of state finances under an eight-year drift toward – what?  We didn’t know. Pawlenty never articulated a clear vision of where the state should go under his leadership.

The budget mess he left behind still haunts the state. Here are the results in summary:

Finance chart

On both a per capita basis and as a percent of the general fund, Minnesota rang up the fourth largest budget deficit in the nation.

The hollow candidate
To have a vision, you have to know who you are and what you want to accomplish. To lead, you have to articulate that vision and have the stubbornness and conviction to push past opposition to the goal. 

Tim Pawlenty is arguing that he has that, but his vision seems to be that he wants to be president. He wants it so badly that he’s willing to do anything, say anything – be anything. 

Even now, his self-proclaimed “courage to stand” – for example, telling seniors in Florida that he’d raise the retirement age – is often simply more semantics. Telling that to seniors doesn’t take all that much courage – they are already retired.

Perhaps there is no room left in the world for Republicans who are not willing to “get their mind around the language.” Judging from the ridiculousness of the climate science deniers and creationists in Congress that might very well be the case. To me, the story is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

The Minnesota press loved Pawlenty and cut him a lot of slack. The less friendly national press is calling him boring and saying he doesn’t stand for anything.

They’re wrong. He does. It’s just that he doesn’t know what it is.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is a Hollywood screenwriter and a national science advocate, and the author of the upcoming book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.” He blogs at neorenaissance. He is married to state auditor Rebecca Otto. 

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/28/2011 - 04:08 am.

    Thank you, Minnpost, for providing Mr. Otto’s thorough analysis of the fiscal result of the Pawlenty administration.
    On the lighter side, the reference to the ludicrous Jesse Ventura like book cover image of TPaw reminded me of how far Tim carried the ‘tough guy’ theme in his bio. In discussing his hockey exploits, he writes that in hockey it’s OK to “drop our gloves first, get set, and then fight”(page 61).” Just don’t hit the guy after he is down, unless he deserves more then the usual beating. Then you pick him up and start whaling on him again.”
    At times as you turn the pages, you wonder if he is applying for a spot on the U.S. olympic boxing team.
    Although he is currently eclipsed by the Bachmann shadow, don’t ignore Tim’s potential to be the last man standing.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/28/2011 - 06:57 am.

    Thanks for making your point with facts, rather than mere opinion, in this column.

    The national media coverage reflects little awareness of his actual record as MN governor and legislator. It’s almost as if it is irrelevant. They focus on his relative standing in a horse race as if it were the only really relevant matter. Pawlenty himself may share that point of view.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/28/2011 - 07:26 am.

    “The office of the Presidency should go to our nation’s best and brightest and not its most ambitious.”

    Former Governor Arne Carlson

  4. Submitted by Jeff Wilfahrt on 06/28/2011 - 07:56 am.

    Thank you Mr. Otto.

    Jeff Wilfahrt, Rosemount, MN

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 06/28/2011 - 08:42 am.

    Wow! Incredible article; well documented; amazingly incisive. Yes, we are used to hypocrisy, parsing, and deception from all politicians of both parties. But some are more egregious than others, and Pawlenty’s image and claims belie the way he governed (and left our state in disrepair). It is unlikely he would be the candidate, and more unlikely he could be elected — but as the campaign nears the facts and performance of all the potential candidates should be thoroughly vetted and uncovered.

    This commentary on Pawlenty is an essential part of that important process. Thanks Mr. Otto.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/28/2011 - 08:47 am.

    I concur. Thank you Mr. Otto.

    Mr. Pawlenty is the political equivalent of the outer shell of a creme puff or a popover;

    attractive to the eye, perhaps, but whether or not its tasty, edible, or even virulently toxic depends completely on what its filled with.

    Unfortunately Mr. Pawlenty seems to be willing to allow himself to be filled with whatever the audience of that day, (that hour?, that minute?) wants to hear.

    Consequently there IS no consistent, predictable, dependable filling. Just an empty shell.

    An empty shell whose concern is ONLY for himself and his own ambitions.

  7. Submitted by Tim Walker on 06/28/2011 - 08:56 am.

    Very nice work, Shawn.

    A neighbor pointed out to me that Pawlenty now sports a Bible strapped to his belt, just one more example of his hyper pandering to the right wing.

  8. Submitted by Steve Marchese on 06/28/2011 - 09:42 am.

    Thank you for a concise, thoughtful article documenting what many of us in the state have observed for years — Tim Pawlenty’s central principle is the preservation and advancement of Tim Pawlenty. I only wish the national press will cover the points here and start to push back at Pawlenty’s fabricated image. I mean, the man can be governor of a state for eight years and leave it with the largest deficit in its history and take absolutely no responsibility for i? Unbelievable.

    I would caution, however, that exactly 20 years ago, another governor was a candidate in the presidential primary of a different party and was also accused of shifting with the prevailing winds. He ended up president for eight years. So there is precedent for this type of strategy (regardless whether or not you think that successful former governor was a good president).

  9. Submitted by Gavin Sullivan on 06/28/2011 - 10:14 am.

    As an assessment of Pawlenty’s character, the article is naive. To enter the public square is to sculpt an identity that cannot mirror the politician’s private thoughts. When a private acquaintance discloses a discrepancy between a pol’s public and private views, he embarrasses–most of all–himself.

    In 2002, Pawlenty, seeking the GOP endorsement for Governor, faced a fierce challenge from his right–and was asked if he was ‘a Carlson moderate’. Pawlenty had one option, in answering the question–and he delivered it predictably. That Arne Carlson would take offense at Pawlenty’s reply says more about Carlson’s identity-acknowledgment needs than it does about Gov. Pawlenty.

  10. Submitted by frank watson on 06/28/2011 - 10:15 am.

    Now lets spend an equal amount of time analyzing Obama’s performance. Enough about Palin and Pawlenty.

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/28/2011 - 10:37 am.

    (#9) Naive or not, holding personal views other than those that you claim as your “rock solid” beliefs is nothing other than hypocritical.

    This sort of hypocrisy has removed the middle ground from the public discourse, to the detriment of our country and it’s traditions.

    It’s the equivalent of Newt’s claim that his serial infidelities didn’t matter because what he said was more important than what he did.

    Really? Doesn’t the matter of character enter into it?

  12. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/28/2011 - 10:37 am.

    (#9) Naive or not, holding personal views other than those that you claim as your “rock solid” beliefs is nothing other than hypocritical.

    This sort of hypocrisy has removed the middle ground from the public discourse, to the detriment of our country and it’s traditions.

    It’s the equivalent of Newt’s claim that his serial infidelities didn’t matter because what he said was more important than what he did.

    Really? Doesn’t the matter of character enter into it?

  13. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 06/28/2011 - 10:38 am.

    #9 Gavin, what we need are more people who really know these politicians exposing their contradictions. I would rather have that information than BS television ads and speeches. Doesn’t the GOP say that “Character counts!”

    The unfortunate thing about Pawlenty is that Minnesota thrives with moderates in the lead. A pro-business DFLer like Rudy Perpich, a social moderate/fiscal conservative like Arne Carlson. A moderate Pawlenty could have cut great deals to do positive things as governor, but instead, he did NOTHING in 8 years except lower taxes for the wealthiest and inflicted cuts on schools, cities and poor people. Wasted potential.

  14. Submitted by Peter Meyerson on 06/28/2011 - 10:50 am.

    Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, the reality is in the graphs provided in this article. Not surprising that we’re looking at a goverenment shutdown in Minnesota.

  15. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/28/2011 - 10:56 am.

    Excellent piece, Mr. Otto. If you were to run for office as a Republican, knowing what I have read in this article, it would be the first time in a long time that I would STRONGLY consider voting Republican. We DO want someone with honesty and integrity, as well as intelligence and courage. We shouldn’t have to “balance” our government with weasels on the left and weasels on the right. Unfortunately, the media has generally glossed over the “weasel” part of the pols running for the next presidential election and have merely been parroting the talking points offered up by these weasels. Of course, those that want to love those weasels will happily ignore any facts that contradict their views, anyway.

    @#10–Go to You’ll find that President Obama is doing pretty well on his promises. If those promises don’t stand up to your standards, take it up with the voters. That being said, ALL of those running for office should be vetted more thoroughly by the media. We’re being bamboozled mostly out of sheer laziness on both the media’s part and our own.

  16. Submitted by Gavin Sullivan on 06/28/2011 - 12:26 pm.

    In reply to #11:

    In crafting an identity, people withhold information about themselves which they know others will consider unattractive. We put effort into associating our names with socially-accepted values, appearances and tastes. To identify an instance of public behavior as ‘hypocritical,’ then, is of little interest–since almost all public behavior is hypocritical. When we play hunt-the-hypocrite, I wish we’d feel greater need to describe why this specific form of hypocrisy ought to be deemed egregious. For those interested in the topic of Political Hypocrisy, I recommend David Runciman’s book:

  17. Submitted by J'M S on 06/28/2011 - 12:28 pm.

    “Do you really have to sell your soul to succeed in Republican politics?”

    I have always just assumed that you ALL had.

  18. Submitted by frank watson on 06/28/2011 - 03:49 pm.

    #15 Rachel, according to Obama has kept 27% of his promises. Is that something to be proud of?

  19. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/28/2011 - 06:06 pm.

    I rate your statement as barely true. While Obama is rated as having kept “only” 27% of his campaign promises, a very large portion of his campaign promises (43%) are “in the works,” meaning that progress has been positively made toward those promises. With at least 1.5 years remaining as President, it would seem that things are going favorably for those “in the works.” In addition, 8% have resulted in compromise, with 14% of them stalled, suggesting a those promises have been “broken” only in that opposition has prevented them from being wholly fulfilled. Finally, there are only 8% of them outright broken. If you call that a bad track record, I recommend that you stay away from the horses. On the other hand, feel free to bet–it increases the payoff.

  20. Submitted by will lynott on 06/28/2011 - 08:38 pm.

    Jeez, #16, there are miles of difference between an individual adopting “socially acceptable norms” (presumably such as wearing clothes in public, not strangling your hairshirt boss even though you really want to, etc) and shamelessly pandering to every available interest group, flip-flopping on major issues, and lying about your record.

    The difference between the individual and the candidate is that the latter wants to be the person whose values and vision will lead our country, and people want to know what those values and visions are before they pull the lever. That’s hard to figure out when the candidate has sold his soul for votes.

    When a private acquaintance discloses a discrepancy between a pol’s public and private views, he provides a valuable service to those who believe that a candidate who does not have a strong internal compass is not fit for the highest office in the land.

  21. Submitted by Mike Dean on 06/29/2011 - 01:49 am.

    According to Eagan city council minutes, then council member Tim Pawlenty suggested that his city become a charter city to firm up certain governing principles for the city rather than subject administrative procedures to constant attacks by the whims of politics.

    Years later, when my group proposed a charter to the city, then governor Pawlenty’s comment that the proposed charter was a “stupid idea” achieved front page headline status it EaganThisWeek newspaper. His “stupid idea” comment was made while I was painting the family room of his home in Eagan!

    His use of loose edged, flouncy language has forever decorated his political wardrobe!

    (By the way, whatever became of his association with John Grunseth?)

  22. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/29/2011 - 03:28 pm.

    Mr. Otto’s article reminded me of a once-notable Minneapolis personal injury attorney, who kept a Bible and photo of his adopted minority son in his briefcase in order to influence Hennepin County jurors. He was ultimately disbarred and jailed for defrauding both his clients and his firm.

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