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Why McCain might have (and maybe should have) picked Pawlenty

By Eric BlackFriday, Aug. 29, 2008
Unless some insider to John McCain’s campaign writes a very candid memoir a few years from now, we probably never will know why he didn’t pick Tim Pawlenty to be his running mate.

Sen. John McCain and Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Scott Audette/REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Thanks, but no thanks: Sen. John McCain and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Thinking back on the veepstakes: 

If McCain’s big decision to put Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the ticket (pretty big surprise, no?) does nothing else, it ends more than two years of Minnesota speculation that our own Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be the pick.

Now that it’s over, why didn’t John McCain choose Tim Pawlenty as his running mate?

Answer: We don’t know, and unless some McCain insider writes a very candid memoir a few years from now, we probably never will know. So, as we prepared to put the buzz of veepstake speculation to rest, I wrote this piece Thursday about the pros and cons of Pawlenty on the ticket. But in doing so, I became convinced that McCain would be a sap to choose the then-presumptive veepstakes frontrunner Mitt Romney or, really, any of the names being bandied by the Great Mentioners, other than our own local boy Pawlenty.

The case for Pawlenty
Pawlenty possesses a large quotient of political talent. He comes across as likeable, winsome, with a good sense of humor, especially self-deprecating humor that communicates humility. He has a regular-guy personality with working-class roots to back it up. Think hockey, and a bit of fishing. Although Pawlenty is very conservative on almost every issue (the most conservative Minnesota governor since the 1920s), there is something about his personality that gives him, however silly this sounds, a more moderate feel.

Pawlenty’s humble roots in South St. Paul (son of a truck-driver father and homemaker mother who died when young Tim was 16) must have counted heavily on his behalf, as a potential McCain running mate, because of the contrast with both McCain (who is immensely wealthy as a result of his second marriage) and Romney (sometimes called a billionaire). With the Dem choice of humbly-rooted Joe Biden, just as McCain was mocked for not knowing how many homes he owned, the value of Pawlenty’s roots and relatively modest net worth rose.

He has never lost an election. Pawlenty has shown an impressive political sure-footedness (he came up as a campaign official for Sen. Dave Durenberger and 1990 Repub guv candidate Jon Grunseth — yes, that one ended badly). Pawlenty survived even in 2006, a terrible year for Republicans nationally and especially in Minnesota.

He is not gaffe-prone. But when he has gotten into trouble — and there have been several significant instances, for example, in his first race for governor he was assessed the largest fine for an ethical malpractice in Minnesota history  — he has demonstrated a rare gift for confessing, taking responsibility, answering all questions and then moving on. He has the gift of coming across as sincere (big advantage over Romney, who has the opposite quality, especially when he had to reinvent himself from moderate to conservative to run for president while explaining away his many sharp turns on key issues).

Pawlenty is young (47), which is considered a good balance for McCain (today is his 72nd birthday). He has an attractive, accomplished, politically experienced wife and two young daughters. The family makes a nice picture. (When an AP camera crew found Pawlenty yesterday to confirm that he would be in Minnesota today when the veep candidate was unveiled, the guv was in the stands watching his daughter’s volleyball game. How sweet is that?)

McCain seems to genuinely like Pawlenty. (Huge advantage over Romney. The main story line coming out of some of latter primary season debates was how McCain could not conceal how deeply he detested Romney.) McCain is said to prize loyalty and Pawlenty was an early, ardent and unwavering McCain supporter — even in the darkest days when the candidacy was almost written off. Although Pawlenty has apparently made complimentary remarks about Barack Obama, the media would not have been able to trot out Pawlenty statements made earlier this year disparaging McCain, his positions or his qualifications to be president. (Yes, once again, we’re talking about you, Mr. Romney. Not that anyone can blame you. You were running against the guy. But you know how it looks in commercials, like those the Republicans are now making showing Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton talking about Obama.)

Pawlenty might have been able to put Minnesota in play (or so they say, but see the debunking section below), maybe even neighboring Wisconsin and Iowa, some pundits say. (I’m even more skeptical of this one.)

Pawlenty’s gubernatorial background (which can also be spun as executive experience) is a balance for McCain’s long Senate career.

Pawlenty is an evangelical Baptist. The social issues conservative portion of the Republican base, which doesn’t fully trust McCain (although his deviations from their orthodoxy are few and minor), would have felt comfortable. Pawlenty, so far as I know, has never wavered from conservative orthodoxy on the social conservative litmus test issues, and has signed into law restrictions on abortions and a law allowing Minnesotans to carry concealed weapons. Before leaving the paragraph that includes religion, Mitt Romney is a Mormon, in case you hadn’t heard. If McCain needs any help with the Mormon vote (Utah is not in play, but Nevada, which has a lot of Mormons, is), this would be a point in Romney’s favor. But how many people would be nervous about voting for a Latter Day Saint, and how would it complicate Team McCain’s efforts to portray Obama as strange and “otherly”?  

Pawlenty is a bona fide and pretty consistent anti-tax fiscal conservative. He first ran for governor in 2002. It’s true that he broke the pledge by signing into law an increase in the sales tax on cigarettes, which he tried to claim was not a tax but a fee (a deviation from his general reputation for straight talk). But during his tenure, Minnesota state government spending has shrunk as a percentage of state income.

The debunk
One of the annoying/amusing (depending on the mood you’re in) things about this game is that so many of the qualities are two-edged swords. For example:

Pawlenty’s youth could have been (and would have been) spun as inexperience. (Although to Minnesotans, it seems like Pawlenty’s been around forever. His first election victory was in 1989 (!) to the Eagan City Council.) He’s a young governor halfway through his second term. If Team McCain is counting on Obama’s relative youth (47) and inexperience (in his fourth year as a freshman senator) as a killer argument, would they have risked undermining it by asking voters to put Pawlenty, a 47-year-old in his sixth year as governor, a heartbeat away from the presidency? (Obviously, Sarah Palin has an even bigger version of this problem, and we’ll see how much it hurts the ticket.)

Like most governors, especially those who didn’t serve in the military, Pawlenty could have claimed little experience in foreign or military affairs. (Although Pawlenty has been above-average in his determination to travel to Kosovo, Iraq and other garden spots where Minnesota guardsmen and women were deployed, in his capacity as their, shall we say, commander in chief.)

When Joe Biden was first named to the Dem ticket, the great speculators took it as a blow to Pawlenty’s chances, based on the surmised fear in Team McCain that the relatively inexperienced Pawlenty would get creamed in a VP debate. I think that’s nonsense, but it was definitely the immediate reaction. If Pawlenty is as smart, funny and sure-footed as I wrote above, he would have done fine. His youthful good looks would have provided nice pictures opposite Biden, 65. I’m not saying Biden is homely, not at all. But he’s gray and balding. As JFK taught Nixon way back in 1960, the pictures are big. And if Pawlenty and his minions had managed, as per the comments just above, to go into the debate (by the way, it’s Oct. 2, mark your calendars) with expectations of  getting creamed, he would surely have exceeded expectations, which in debate-speak is almost as good as winning. (OK, so this debunk paragraph kinda turned the other way. Sue me.) This particular concern about Pawlenty, that he wouldn’t be prepared to face Biden in a debate, will get a full airing with Palin.

It’s true that Pawlenty has never lost an election. And he has maintained a high approval rating (currently 55 percent, according to the recent MPR Humphrey Institute poll). But it’s also true that he never got above 50 percent in a statewide race. His 2002 guv win (with 44 percent) and his 2006 reelection (47) were both products of Minnesota’s three-party system, and most analysts believe that the Independence Party ticket hurt the DFL in both races. In 2006, Pawlenty seemed doomed to defeat a week before the election and was saved by DFLer Mike Hatch’s temper tantrum. A 55 percent approval rating is healthy, especially for a Repub in a blue-leaning state, but other governors have been higher, including Republican Arne Carlson. The point for debunking purposes is that Pawlenty’s undefeated record may overstate his popularity.

And while we’re on the subject, there is plenty of room for doubt that Pawlenty would have put Minnesota into play. There is no case since 1960 in which a running-mate choice turned any state from blue to red (or vice versa). Minnesota has the nation’s longest streak (eight straight) of giving its electoral votes to the Dems. It’s true that some of those years have been very close. But the overall climate of the state and the country is trending Democratic this year. The MPR-Humphrey Institute poll I mentioned above found that the current partisan makeup of Minnesotans is Democrat, 50 percent; Republican, 39 percent; independent, 10 percent. I know that some recent polls show the race between Obama and McCain to be close at present. But it will be an upset if Minnesota turns red in the 2008 presidential race, Pawlenty on the ticket or no.

And then there’s the weird but intriguing possibility that some Minnesotans, maybe even some Republicans, would have voted against a McCain-Pawlenty ticket to prevent Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from becoming governor. Molnau is the most unpopular figure on the statewide political scene.

As for the occasional reference, in know-nothing pieces about the veepstakes, that Pawlenty would help the ticket in Wisconsin and Iowa, just ask yourself how likely it is that you (if you are a Minnesotan) would vote for the ticket of a party for which you normally don’t vote because it had a governor from Wisconsin or Iowa in the veep slot. Really, these pundits!

In any event, the Palin choice makes clear that Team McCain isn’t playing the key swing state game with its veep pick.

Pawlenty’s socially conservative positions would have played well with the base. Unlike Romney, he wouldn’t have had to answers questions of sudden conversions. But it’s not at all clear that these are winning positions with the national electorate. McCain flirted quite late in the veepstakes with former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, both of whom are pro-choice on abortion, and there was plenty of speculation that this could help the ticket with some categories of swing voters.

Likewise fiscal conservatism. The concept of holding taxes down and balancing the budget is very widely popular. Cutting wasteful government is always a good idea. But people also like some of the things that government spending buys, like education, health care and infrastructure. The Dems would surely have found ways to point out that under Gov. Pawlenty, education and infrastructure spending have lagged, Minnesota has declined relative to other states in several measures of excellence and the percentage of working-class Minnesotans without health insurance has risen. For the first time in many decades, the always-above-average Minnesota economy is underperforming the national average by some key measures.

Speaking of infrastructure, there’s the collapse of the I-35W bridge. The best efforts of his critics have failed to turn up a logical way to hang direct responsibility for the tragedy on Pawlenty’s negligence. But there’s no question that infrastructure spending has lagged.

It’s another measure of Pawlenty’s political skill that his 55 percent approval rating occurs around the anniversary of the bridge collapse. Pawlenty’s best qualities, as described above, were in evidence in the days and weeks after the collapse, and somehow it was Molnau whose public image (never so hot) was destroyed. But the rest of the country wasn’t paying such close attention to all those shots of Pawlenty looking and sounding good at the scene of the tragedy. If he had been on the ticket, the Dems would have had a second chance, before a national audience, to hang the blame on Pawlenty for that, for the measures of decline that can be traced to Pawlenty’s tax and spending priorities, and for — I don’t know — taking orders from Dick Cheney about which office he should run for in 2002. Would it have worked? I guess we’ll never know.

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.