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

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.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/29/2008 - 01:12 pm.

    The trouble with lefty critique’s of conservative decision making is that, well, most lefty’s are hard pressed to maintain a grip on their own vague rationalizations much less try and understand thought processes 180 degress North.

    As Eric illustrates here, for lefty’s living insulated within leftist urban areas the struggle is even more pronounced.

    Take for example, this stab at it:

    “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.”

    I do give Eric credit for pluck, but viewed from outside the DFL feverswamp, he’s really tripped over his shoelaces.

    “Conservative Minnesota politician” is an oxymoron; always has been, and probably always will be.

    Sure T-Paw looks like Franco when compared to Wellstone!, or Betty McCollum, or Keith X Ellison, or (forgive me) Phyllis Kahn, but trust me here, to the conservative-at-large he is far from a finished product.

    Governor Palin’s selection was a surprise, but a very, very welcome one.

    McCain’s candidacy has been greeted with a resigned acceptance, at best, by the conservative base of the GOP. By choosing a vibrant, smart, committed, sincere conservative like Palin, he has not only shored up his credibility with the GOP rank and file, he’s provided a much needed injection of enthusiasim into the electorate.

    Very savvy move indeed.

    In my own humble opinion, McCain has just increased his chances of a White House residency beyond Obama’s reach.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/29/2008 - 12:56 pm.

    Eric, I’ve been baffled by the carrying MN, IA and WI thing too. Could hardly see it moving the dial in MN, much less neighboring states. Pawlenty is a likeable guy (important in MN politics) but I don’t think the state would rise up to give him the VP job.
    BTW, Palin is an inspired pick. She’s fought corrpution in her own party and proved that she’s willing to put principle first. She’s the only person on the Rep or Dem tickets with any executive experience. For the first time in this election cycle, I’m excited about the Rep ticket. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 08/29/2008 - 11:53 am.

    First, I’m a Democrat. I still think Pawlenty would be slated if for a cabinet post if McCain wins. His support of an increase in the minimum wage in Minnesota would make him look good as Secretary of Labor in a party that sometimes comes across as thinking workers should be serfs.

    I think McCain realized two things. One, if it was two moderate white Republicans males on the ticket, they had little chance of attracting non-standard voters. This is not 1988 when Bush Sr. could pick Dan Quayle in the shadow of Ronald Reagan and win. This required a bold move.

    Second, I think McCain’s people might have been a little afraid of Pawlenty’s prickly side. As a former journalist, I would give political coverage of Pawlenty by the Minnesota press a D minus. Nothing ever about him pantsing Sviggum at a House softball game. Almost nothing about his stupid comment about his wife having sex with him. Nothing about the time at the Governor’s Fishing Opener when he made a tasteless joke about putting laxative in Molnau’s food and she was wearing adult diapers. And even this week, nothing about Pawlenty offering to provide access for corporate CEOs in exchange for money at the Republican convetnon. What passes for political coverage in this state would get you fired from a real news organization in most states. I have to read other news sources to find out what’s going on in Minnesota. You put Pawlenty talking about his own record and stupid stunts in front of some reporters from the Washington Post, LA Times and the New York Times and they’ll rip him apart and he’d make the outburst by Hatch look like the result of a bad breakfast.

  4. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 08/29/2008 - 01:57 pm.

    Tim Pawlenty got thrown under the McCain Express Bus, and probably for a character trait that is difficult to change – gender.

    An interesting result for his many months of loyalty, and absenteeism from his state.

    Sarah Palin may attract some supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Republican ticket, but I don’t think the number will be enough to ‘save’ McCain’s chances of being elected president.

    Palin may have good executive experience in a remote, sparsely populated state.

    McCain may think he has enough foreign policy and national security experience that his partner doesn’t need it.

    Pawlenty probably did as well as any governor could do to add those items to his resume with trade mission trips to other countries, and numerous visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq to visit Guard members.

    As Commander-in-Chief of the Minnesota National Guard, Pawlenty attended many military funerals, giving the impression that he actually cared about the members of the military and their family members.

    In that regard, he is paces ahead of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

  5. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 08/29/2008 - 02:35 pm.

    The notion that management experience is a critical criterion for the Presidency has been puzzling me since Romney started touting his own. We have never looked for management skills in our Chief Executive. A great leader has the ability to assemble a crack team and provide vision for them to execute. Our country is not WalMart or even Microsoft.

    Yesterday Pawlenty dragged out what will be an endlessly repeated Republican refrain, that the candidate should be judged by “what he’s done and what he’s run.” He then had the stunning chutzpah to offer his own experience as the Commander in Chief of the MN National Guard! (I wonder if Palin will give herself points on that score, too.)

    Even if management skill were what we need, Pawlenty’s has not been stellar. Before becoming governor, Pawlenty joined Sviggum and pals like Molnau to undercut the strength of Minnesota government in years of attacking all government spending, as if education and healthcare and transportation should be free. They joined with the erratic Ventura to push rebates we didn’t need and deplete our resources so we were unprotected when the economy tanked. Then he had the hypocrisy to whine about having “inherited” a huge deficit. For years they pinched and cut and bragged about keeping costs down, while our infrastructure deteriorated. You bet I blame him for the bridge collapse.

    I was sickened at the thought of Pawlenty as VP, suddenly catapulting into the Presidency if McCain should fall ill or die. A small man, a man with no vision, a man sure of his moral righteousness and unable to comprehend any worldview beyond his own.

    But we are saved. Instead of Pawlenty, McCain has chosen a nice lady who eats mooseburgers. Obama/Biden will sweep past them, taking care not to kick dust in their faces.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/29/2008 - 02:38 pm.

    In a word, integrity. He was vetted and found wanting.

  7. Submitted by Paul Harvey on 08/29/2008 - 03:46 pm.

    Regarding executive experience, a few observations:

    First, such experience is not particular necessary for a Vice-President who has no formal administrative duties (unless she becomes President, in which case, Palin’s other shortcomings would tend to be highlighted).

    Second, just the fact of having executive experience does not guaranty that it would be exercised competently. Together, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfield had substantial executive experience, yet it did not prevent them from making a complete administrative mess of Iraq’s occupation (whatever you think of the war strategically).

    Finally, Palin has governed a state which derives a considerable proportion (over 80%, I believe) of its revenues from oil and gas, which removes a great deal of the challenge most other governors face in managing a budget.

    I don’t dispute (because I don’t know) that she is “an excellent person”, but without knowing what she thinks about the foreign policy issues of the day, or even the national domestic policy issues of the day, and without example of her judgment or temperament,can we assume more about this choice than it is a move to capture disaffected Hilary Clinton supporters?

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/29/2008 - 02:58 pm.

    Nancy, identity politics is a Democrat value, not Republican.

    We judge our leadership by what it has accomplished, completely irregardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences or any other superficial trait.

    Sarah Palin is an excellent person because she’s an excellent person…period.

    I know that may seem astounding, but in time, perhaps during the second term of McCain\Palin, maybe even Democrats will learn to live in a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin (or our gender, or what we do in bed) but by the content of our character.

    We’re holding on to the dream, Nancy.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/29/2008 - 09:28 pm.

    In a word, integrity. He was vetted and found wanting.

    To this I would add the picksters only saw room for one disingenuous person on the ticket and that was the individual at the top.

    The thing is there not much guessnig to be done about what the motives for running for office here.

    And exactly what is a feverswamp ? It sure ain’t framing the debate !

  10. Submitted by John Hottinger on 08/29/2008 - 03:31 pm.

    A slight correction. Pawlenty has not followed the social conservative mantra without exception. As a MN House member he voted for the additional of sexual orientation into the state human rights statute. Of course, when he wanted endorsement for Governor he called it his greatest mistake. He shifted his position on a fundamental issue of humans rights in order to get the backing of anti-gay delegates, Nothing changed on the issue, so he must have changed his position to serve his ambition.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/29/2008 - 05:10 pm.

    The Minnesota media has pretty much given Pawlenty a free pass, seldom analyzing the damage done by his adherence to the No New Taxes Pledge (and the urgings of Grover Norquist) INSTEAD OF to the needs of the people of Minnesota.

    He is truly a Man of the Far Right. His disdain for “able bodied” welfare recipients and homeless persons has been there for all to see, even though they could well be veterans suffering from PTSD or young people fleeing abusive homes.

    To balance the budget, he didn’t mind kicking thousands of low-wage workers off MinnesotaCare, the only health insurance they could possible afford. He also didn’t mind using tobacco-award funds meant to pay for anti-smoking TV ads. Within six months the number of teens who said they would “probably” try smoking increased by 11 percent.

    Before the Dems had a majority in the Minnesota House, he openly sneered at legislative members who dared to write “ridiculous” legislation that required a tax increase even though they should have know he would veto it. He is somewhat more polite now.

    Why this man continues to “earn” high approval ratings is a mystery to me.

  12. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 08/30/2008 - 12:13 am.

    I agree with Jeremy that Pawlenty has gotten a gigantic free pass from the Minnesota Press, and his genial personality has been effective at deflecting criticism of his mismanagement of the state.

    But I find incredibly humorous that the joker Thomas Swift thinks that Sarah Palin is a woman of integrity. She used her power as government to fire the State Public Safety Commissioner because he (Walter Monegan) wouldn’t fire a state trooper who was divorcing Palin’s sister. Then she hired a known sexual harasser to replace him.

    She pushed a plan through the legislature for TransCanada Pipeline to build through Alaska without allowing any debate.

    Now, she is a governor whose experience is extremely light and has been chosen by McCain to be his running mate. One heartbeat away from the presidency? I think this is a good enough reason to vote Democratic.

  13. Submitted by willie lorsung on 08/30/2008 - 10:45 am.

    Let’s stop calling guys like Pawlenty “social conservatives”. They advocate government interference in peoples’ relationships with their doctors, violating the law of the land regarding government use and non-use of warrants, politicizing the justice dept. and invading peoples’ private lives. These people are “social radicals” and should be named as such.

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