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Pawlenty and presidential run: A top-five candidate

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Gov. Pawlenty took his aborning presidential quest to the deep-thinking Aspen Ideas Festival over the holiday weekend and attracted very little attention. Wash. Post political blogger Chris Cillizza didn’t even mention Pawlenty as one of the winners (or losers) from the Sarah Palin weird-out, although I would say Pawlenty definitely benefits (as he also benefitted from Mark Sanford’s political death).

Pawlenty is increasingly positioned as a potential Repub prez candidate who is at least acceptable to all the wings of the party base, without having a major biographical or reputational blot that he needs to overcome. (I know that liberals think his record as governor is a reputational blot, but I’m talking about as viewed by the conservative/Republican electorate.) His major weaknesses, starting out, are national name ID and national fund-raising network.

Anyway, for my money, he is a top-five candidate for the 2012 Repub nomination but he is flying mostly below the radar screen for the time being. And that seems to be fine with him. Here’s audio of what the governor said as Aspen, via MPR. Also, a site maintained by the Aspen Festival contains six quotes attributed to the governor in which he appears to continue his recent pattern of coming across as down-home, likeable, churchy but not too churchy, favoring conservative ideas but not specific ideas that he wants to talk about just yet, and a contrast to unnamed others who hurt the Republican Party because they come across as angry and extreme.

Here are the quotes (they are full text as provided by that Aspen website):

  • “Regardless of whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Green, there’s a certain amount of human frailty. All of us should be hesitant to be self-righteous.”
  • “I tend to be more in the McCain camp than in the nuanced camp.”
  • “The Republican Party needs to be more optimistic, positive, and hopeful. Nobody wants to follow cranks.”
  • “The Republican Party on the whole will remain a conservative party. But we need to do a better job of explaining why those values matter.”
  • “When you’ve got Hillary Clinton on rhetorical bended knee begging China to pay for our debt, that should tell you something.”
  • “When you watch cable news shows, you don’t need the voice and the message of the Republican Party to come from some ticked off guy.”

Late morning update: I have to confess, when i wrote this post this a.m., I wasn’t aware that MPR had broadcast the whole Aspen appearance. When we found that out, we quickly added a link and now I’ve just spent the last hour listening to the interview. I stand by everything I said above and here are some more reactions based on the whole feed:

Former congressman Mickey Edwards, a very smart, deep conservative, asked the questions and did a great job. He tried just assuming that Pawlenty was auditioning for president. After a while, he tried just begging Pawlenty to announce that he wanted to be president. Pawlenty didn’t take the bait. On the fourth of fifth round, Pawlenty said: “To run for president, you have to be famous, wealthy or have novelty and I have none of that.”

Pawlenty is very, very buttery smooth. He is skillful at weaving long answers that don’t sound evasive of the question but leave lilttle to argue about. He refuses to be taken where he doesn’t want to go, which is into a lot of specifics. I suppose this also contributes to a lack of charisma, although he has that likeable, authentic thing going pretty much all the time.

Then just when I thought he was going to spend a whole hour without committing himself to any specific ideas, he went quite deep on education, then on energy. Even on those, just sounded smart at a detailed level but left very little that any but a very committed liberal could really take issue with.

Edwards asked him about his general philosophy of whether government is the problem or the solution. Pawlenty: “Government should be limited and effective.” (Details to come.) Edwards pushed Pawlenty to identify his key issue. “Educational accountability.”

The tone thing: One of Pawlenty’s favorite topics and one that shows his advantages over sharper edged Repubs. Pawlenty on what he learned from Ronald Reagan: “Be hopeful and optimisitic and poisitive and civil.”

McCain: I was struck by how often Pawlenty cited McCain as having the right approach. Republicans who bolted the party in 2008 to protest against Bush for things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib missed the boat because McCain already stood against torture and favored closing Guantanamo.

During the Dem convention in Denver last year, Pawlenty had good reason to believe that he was just hours away from being on the McCain ticket. Then he was sent home from Denver (or left in anger after learning that Sarah Palin won the veepstakes) and has, with very few exceptions, maintained a good soldier, deep public loyalty to McCain and everything for which McCain stood.

On foreign/military policy, Pawlenty clung close to McCainism, and associated himself, quite gently actually, with those who think Obama should have used tougher rhetoric about the Iranian elections and other international issues. Pawlenty has a certain Palin problem, being a governor, of lack of accomplishments in this area. He does talk about the foreign trips he’s made to visit the Minnesota guardsmen and all, but has a way of mentioning it that is harder to ridicule than Palin’s you-can-see-Russia-from-Alaska version.

On Bush, Pawlenty said historians will view him more kindly than we do now, but he didn’t find much to praise other than no-more-attacks-after-9/11 and Pawlenty said Bush betrayed core Republican values with big spending programs that ran up the deficit.

Pawlenty even used the word “hypocrisy” to describe Bush’s fiscal record, with the slightly safe cop-out intro: “some would say hypocrisy.” But then the strong principled statement: “If we are going to be a party of spending restraint, and spending discipline… we have to match up our words with some deeds.”

It does seem that running, in general, against the growth of government spending, may be a key for TPaw. Not that all Republicans won’t have the same position, but it matches his record and he has a boatload of statistics memorized to make the case that government growth can’t go on forever. He generally avoids attack dog mode when trying to establish his complaints about Obamaism. But not on the spending issue. Pawlenty at Aspen:

“We are going to have the federal government equivalent of the mortgage meltdown within the next 25 years… You cannot defy indefinitely the fiscal laws of gravity.”


Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Rich Goldsmith on 07/08/2009 - 09:31 am.

    I heard Pawlenty’s speech in Aspen on MPR a few days ago. They have the full audio here.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/08/2009 - 10:16 am.

    Pawlenty is a great candidate, on paper. What he needs to work on is establishing and/or projecting that elusive quality that draws people to your candidacy. Obama has IT, HRC & McCain do not. Bush 43 had IT in 2000, Gore did not. WJ Clinton has IT. Reagan had IT. Right now, Pawlenty might have hints of it, but not IT. His path to the nomination will require knocking off Romney, a similar resume candidate (who also lacks IT), who benefits from already having built a national organization & name recognition.

  3. Submitted by Charles Goodman on 07/08/2009 - 10:31 am.

    Mr Black,

    Interesting take. However, seeing what Mr. Pawlenty has done to Minnesota (cutting funds to education in the name of a balanced budget, cutting local art and culture funding to not passing a transportation bill after the 35W catastrophe) makes me say that I would not even vote for him for president of my local McDonald’s.

    I heard him speak at the Midway Chamber of Commerce earlier this spring when Mr. Pawlenty urged everyone to help with the floods in northern Minnesota. I think Mr. Pawlenty should act not just talk. Shouldn’t HE have been helping instead of speaking at a CHAMBER event?

    Mr. Black, Tim Pawlenty had potential – it’s too bad common sense and humility aren’t part of his resume.

  4. Submitted by antony cliffton on 07/08/2009 - 10:32 am.

    Honestly how does an absentee governor who won reelection by ~20,000 votes consider that a mandate to run for president? He’s been running for president on Fox “news” for 3 years now. One could argue the only reason he even won was because of Judy Dutcher’s deer in the headlights “E-85????” media foible in the days before the election. If you want an incurious stubborn governor whose failed at everything else in life to be president (sound familiar?) by all means get him on the ticket with a gimmick running mate.

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/08/2009 - 10:56 am.

    I would ratchet Pawlenty’s 2012 run into the top three now — and he has started the campaign as of NOW. This morning he was on CNBC describing his actions on Minnesota’s financial crisis, and his “solution” via unallotments. His theme is now clear — what is needed is less government, less taxes, and yes, less services! His lack of compassion for our less fortunate citizens came across sadly as just a necessary price to be paid for unraveling social programs.

    His demeanor is one of calm and seemingly “reasonable” as compared to the shrillness of other candidates — but at the heart of his message is an ultra-conservative philosophy that will appeal to the Republican base.

    As with his term as Governor, his image and his actions are at odds with many voters who vote on surface impressions rather than a deep understanding of issues. If he can pull that off nationally with better name recognition and skilled PR, he would end up a formidable candidate, and I believe would cause a shift in American policies well to the right of even Reagan and GW Bush.

  6. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 07/08/2009 - 11:42 am.

    I too listened to Pawlenty at Aspen. I think Eric’s point is not whether or not Pawlenty should get elected President.

    It is whether or not he is a leading candidate for nomination by the Republicans in 2012. After listening to him (and I am not a conservative in any meaning of the word), I have to say that if he can get his pleasant personality, message and image out there in a wideapread fashion (via lots of appearances on Fax, MCNBC, CNN etc.), combined with his geographical closeness to Iowa, I think he would be a very strong candidate WITHIN the GOP, and proivde the GOP with a better chance in 2012 than any of the other obvious (at this time) candidates.

    Again, like Eric, I am not saying he SHOULD be elected President, or that he DESERVES to be elected. What I am saying is that Democrats should take his potential very, very seriously as he could be a very effective candidate for his side of the policy debate.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/08/2009 - 03:35 pm.

    Clinton and Carter as governors came out of no where to win the Dem’s nomination.

    The GOP usually has a political hierarchy that comes into play. Romney or some battle hardened candidate with a solid organization, national name recognition and the holy of holies: an effective fund raising machine.

    But anything is possible 3.5 years is a life time in politics. Its up for grabs. Pawlenty deserves a good look. They could do a lot worse.

  8. Submitted by William Pappas on 07/08/2009 - 07:39 pm.

    Pawlenty’s down home soft spoken approach that very seldom produces a digestable piece of information, unless he is heaping ridicule on the democrats in the Minnesota legislature, will not serve him well in a presidential race. His lack of accomplishments in Minnesota are a problem. His inability to work with the legislature and the damage he is doing to the state through the ill advised unallotment will be a major negative. In fact I don’t think the media has quite grasped what the failure to raise revenue to close the budget gap will do to average Minnesotans. The no tax, tax cuts for the rich, spending cuts policies of both Pawlenty and Bush have been an abject failure and were rejected in the last national election quite soundly. Pawlenty offers absolutely nothing new to the conservative republican agenda. That agenda will not capture the next election, guaranteed. His policies have always been geared toward enriching the powerful and it won’t be hard to see. Once the campaign gets rolling the fence sitters will be asking of Pawlenty, “Where’s the beef”.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/08/2009 - 11:14 pm.

    As others have noted, we’re talking about the GOP nomination here, not winning the election.
    Right now, the opposition seems to be Palin and Romney — Pawlenty is human in comparison.

    As far as his record as governor goes, remember that Reagan was elected president after deciding not to run for governor of California for a third term, and that Richard Nixon was elected president after losing his bid for re-election as governor of California.

  10. Submitted by Rod Loper on 07/09/2009 - 08:59 am.

    I am puzzled how a very bright, articulate, ideologically solid conservative like this
    can’t attract corporate cash compared to the others. Maybe it is the IT thing missing. Personal charm perhaps?

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 07/09/2009 - 11:12 am.

    Author Editor Paul Brandon says:
    “As others have noted, we’re talking about the GOP nomination here, not winning the election.”

    True enough, and the skillful politician (such as Pawlenty is) will prudently wait to see whether the wind will be with the Rebubs or against them as the election period comes to full birth.

    A month can be a lifetime in politics.

  12. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 07/09/2009 - 09:02 pm.

    Eric – There you go again with that “likeable” meme about Pawlenty. If you are gay or lesbian or a member of an Indian tribe in Minnesota, there is nothing to like about him. Just because Pawlenty returns YOUR phone calls doesn’t make him likeable to everyone else.

    I heard Pawlenty’s talk at the Aspen Ideas festival. If he’s the best they can do, they need to change the name of the festival. Pawlenty has never had a single idea that forwarded the good of Minnesota that he was willing to see through to conclusion. He announced a few promising programs and then let them die. The things he has carried through with have been pretty lame indeed. The only ideas Pawlenty’s interested in are shrewdly calculated moves that advance his political position and whack his opponents. He especially loves the whacking part.

    And PLEASE, try to come up with something other than “likable” to describe the governor. It’s hackneyed and it’s not true.

  13. Submitted by John E Iacono on 07/10/2009 - 11:08 am.

    Whatever Ambrose may feel, the fact is that people — even those who do not like his policies — do like Pawlenty.

    Ambrose, wishing does not make it so. If it did, for many persons Obama would not be liked.

  14. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 07/10/2009 - 01:58 pm.

    John, I can introduce you to a whole lot of people who do not like Pawlenty – even a little bit. Remember, he has never managed to get even 50% of the vote in his races for governor.

    Furhtermore, it seems a bit crazy to separate liking Pawlenty from liking his policies. Most Minnesotans only know Pawlenty by his policies and his media appearances. If they believe they know him from his appearances on radio and tv, they are deluded. Those are carefully planned and scripted events. When it comes to his performance as governor, it’s the policies that matter.

    I’d love to get to know Pawlenty personally so I could decide if I like him. But, he purposely avoids showing up where I live. The photo ops wouldn’t be useful to him.

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