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The tragedy and farce that is Tim Pawlenty

The former governor’s candidacy is a long shot, where the prospects for success are low. It also speaks to many failures in state and national politics. 

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty answered questions about his campaign Friday at Hovies Grill in Eagan.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

— Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

But when the same person reappears twice, neither G.W.F. Hegel nor Marx saw that he would represent both tragedy and farce at the same time. So it will be with the candidacy of Tim Pawlenty running for a third term as governor of Minnesota.

Pawlenty’s candidacy is both a tragedy and a farce, but it is also a long shot where the prospects for success are low. But his candidacy speaks to many failures in state and national politics, especially with Republicans who are torn between embracing President Donald Trump and being repelled by him.

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Consider first the tragedy: Pawlenty’s governorship was largely a failure unless one defines a single-minded cut taxes über alles to be the hallmark of success. His candidacy was launched in 2002 in the waning days of the Jesse Ventura administration, when the state and national economy were collapsing after 9/11 and the busting of the dot com era. As it was clear that the state was going into the red, Ventura proposed tax increases and budget cuts to balance the budget, yet Pawlenty and Roger Moe, as respective leaders of the House and Senate, nixed that idea, choosing to kick the fiscal problems down the road past the election.

Fiscal gimmicks defined the Pawlenty administration; they included illegal use of unallotments, stealing from the tobacco settlement, trying to force contractors to pay for construction projects up front, and calling taxes user fees. One also saw a failure to raise state matching funds to qualify for federal transportation matching funding, and borrowing from schools and other funds. When Pawlenty left office, he strapped the state with an illusionary balanced budget for the current biennium and a projected $6 billion deficit for Dayton. So much for fiscal conservatism.

Tragedy – in terms of a fallen bridge – is a lasting image of his governorship, and was also how Pawlenty got elected twice and what defined his governorship. In 2002 he was in second place behind Tim Penny in the race for governor when Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed and the senator died. That event, plus then the Wellstone memorial service, transformed state politics, resulting in Pawlenty winning the governorship with 44.4 percent of the vote.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Four years later, with only days before the election, he was behind Mike Hatch — only to see the latter make several statements that cost him the election. In addition, when one examines the election returns, it was the strong turnout for Michele Bachmann in the Sixth Congressional District that pushed Pawlenty across the finish line with 46.7 percent of the vote. Pawlenty never won a majority of the popular vote, and were it not for tragedies or missteps by others – or the help of others – he would not have been governor. Couple these events with his miserable run for president and one can really ask how good or formidable a candidate he was.

Given the tragedy of his governorship, it is a farce for him to run again. Watching his video declaring the run, one wonders what is his narrative or rationale for running? In addition, Pawlenty is a person trapped by history. He both wants to embrace and reject Trump; he wants to appeal to a party that once supported him but which no longer exists. He needs a GOP base to win, but he is alienated from it  — while at the same time embracing it will alienate him from the swing voters he needs to win.

Moreover, Pawlenty has historical baggage that will define him among voters who remember him, but he was governor so long ago he lacks the name recognition that many think is his real strength. Pawlenty will be attacked and defined by both Jeff Johnson and other Republicans as out of step and as a failed governor, damaging him if in fact he does manage to go to a primary and win (which I am not sure he will). At the same time the eventual DFL gubernatorial candidate will benefit from these attacks, making it hard for Pawlenty to win come November.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”  He blogs at Schultz’s Take.   

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