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What the nation knows about Pawlenty: It’s not the full story

If you even recognize the name Tim Pawlenty you are easily in the upper half of the country in your expertise.
REUTERS/Brian C. Frank
If you even recognize the name Tim Pawlenty you are easily in the upper half of the country in your expertise.

Last week, Tim Pawlenty became the closest thing the Repubs have to a serious and declared candidate for president (although announcing the creation of an exploratory campaign committee is still, technically, a step short of declaring a candidacy, and all of these half-steps are more or less technical and not really all that meaningful outside the world of campaign finance laws).

Pawlenty’s half-step came at the end of a month in which he had been the subject of several high-profile magazine articles, from the right and the left, anointing him as one of the most credible and electable members of the crowded Repub pre-field.

All the pieces, almost ritually, recite the same few points:

  • TPaw may not be the first choice of any of the main constituencies within the Repub nominating coalition but he is not unacceptable to any of them (Abraham Lincoln, a relative unknown in 1860, won the second-ever Republican nomination by being everyone’s second choice).
  • TPaw’s record shows that an anti-tax, small-government governor can succeed substantively (it’s interesting, and worthy of a whole separate piece, that in the current Republican context “success” does not require any substantive improvement in the economy, health, educational outcomes or any other measure of the quality of life in Minnesota; success is defined almost entirely in vetoing tax increases and holding down the growth rate of government spending).
  • And TPaw’s political success in solid blue Minnesota raises the hope that he could put Minnesota and other bluish states into play for the 2012 Republican ticket.

None of these analysis points is utter rubbish. All strike me as half-truths verging on three-quarter truths. But seeing Pawlenty, who remains relatively unknown nationally, introduced with such partial truths is a good reminder that there’s always more to the story and – most of the time – we don’t know what’s in the missing portion.

What we think we know
I mean this as a preachment, mostly to myself and to whomever may be open to it, of humility about what we think we know. Our certainty about our conclusions should be moderated by the perpetual likelihood that there is more information out there.

Look at it this way. If you even recognize the name Tim Pawlenty you are easily in the upper half of the country in your expertise. If you know that he is a two-term former governor of Minnesota, you are in the info-elite. If someone tells you (as all of these recent pieces did) that Minnesota is a solid blue state in which the success of a Republican is unusual, you have now started to exceed informed and beginning to be spun, because the story is a little more complicated.

Let’s just focus for a minute on the last of three analysis points above, because it’s the easiest one.

In Ramesh Ponnuru’s National Review homage to TPaw (Headlined “Pawlenty to Like”) it comes across thus:

“He was a successful governor of a deep-blue state — Minnesota last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1972 — for two terms.”

Yes, Minnesota has given its electoral votes to the Dem nominee in nine straight presidential elections. And if your goal is simply to give an overly blue impression of our state, that’s the fact you would cite first. On the other hand, before last year, the Dem nominees had lost five consecutive gubernatorial elections. That last fact suggests that a Republican winning the governorship in Minnesota is not a sign of an amazing political talent.

Pawlenty, when he wants to emphasize the crazy-lefty nature of Minnesota politics, usually says that he comes from the state that elected Al Franken to the Senate. (But, of course, the same state elected Norm Coleman to the same seat on the previous round.)

Two victories
The next fact that Minnesotans mostly know but that readers of the various March pieces introducing TPaw to the nation mostly don’t know is that Tim Pawlenty, in his two winning runs, never came close to receiving 50 percent of the vote. (In 2002 it was 43 percent. In 2006 it was 46.7.)

This, of course, is because Minnesota is a three-party state (or more than three – Green Party nominee Ken Pentel received 2.4 percent of the vote in 2002). That’s not Pawlenty’s fault, not at all, but many DFLers believe that the IP and Green Party votes helped Pawlenty assemble his pluralities.

And both of those elections were hit by late shocks that changed the race. In 2002 it was the aftermath of the Wellstone crash. In 2006, everyone close to the race on both sides believes DFLer Mike Hatch would have beaten Pawlenty if he had kept his temper out of sight for a few more days. And if Hatch had managed to do so, we would not be citing Pawlenty’s 2-0 record in statewide races in blue Minnesota.

I could go on. Probably you could too. The point is not to deny or dispute Pawlenty’s political success in Minnesota. 2-0 is 2-0. Nor do I really doubt that a Pawlenty-Haley Barbour ticket would potentially put more purple states into play in 2012 than would a Barbour-Pawlenty ticket.

And the same is true of the basic claims about TPaw’s record as governor. He certainly was anti-tax. He vetoed all the taxes that came to his desk (except for the one that he signed). He did restrain the growth of state government during his tenure, compared with what would have occurred under a DFL governor (although the statistic that TPaw likes to use to illustrate this is exaggerated and misleading).

It’s just that there’s always more to the story.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/30/2011 - 09:25 am.

    Of course, he’s got Darling Michele to make him look good.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/30/2011 - 09:42 am.

    Personally, I think the Republicans need to run a Bachmann/Pawlenty ticket! (snark intended)

    As far as Pawlenty being a “successful” governor, if we evaluate Gov. Pawlenty in the same way our Republican friends SO want to evaluate our state’s teachers, based on how much their students improved over the course of each year,…

    i.e. how much the lives of the citizens of the state of Minnesota improved during his tenure as governor,

    Tim Pawlenty was a miserable failure for all but the extremely wealthy.

    But, alas, with our current completely useless, completely vacuous, horse race, “winning is all that matters” press focus on politicians, (and what the HELL ever happened to the kinds of substantive reporting that would tell the public what we need to know about anything),

    The fact that Governor Pawlenty managed to get “his way” in Minnesota for eight years, no matter how much damage “his way” caused, no matter how much destruction and chaos he left in his wake,

    that he got “his way” is all that matters to most of the press (even though the rest of the citizens of the state lost a great amount of what made our state a great place).

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 10:02 am.

    Bush and Reagan, even Palin to some extent proved that a governors actual record is irrelevant. Whole books were published for instance on what a disaster of a governor Bush had been in Texas, and yet he won (well kinda) twice. Same with Reagan.

    I think the thing that may factor the most about Pawlenty will be his lack of “spark”. He may look good on paper, but remember he never won a clear majority even in MN. Until the Tea Party came along Obama looked like he may have a problem brewing but I’ve got a feeling he’s going to luck out and end up facing a lackluster Republican in 2012. That will certainly be the case if he’s up against Pawlenty.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/30/2011 - 10:05 am.

    Thank you, Paul. Mr. Pawlenty will seem like the soul of statesmanship, gravitas, and sensible public policy when the one he’s being compared to is Mrs. Bachmann.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 10:43 am.

    Pawlenty has never run against an opponent nearly as talented as Obama. I imagine Pawlenty standing next Obama on a debate stage and I just don’t see him making the grade. One thing we’re not mentioning here is the fact that he’s actually having difficulty nailing down the nomination of his own party, and THAT’s his base.

  6. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/30/2011 - 11:41 am.

    Eric, your caveat on his two wins is correct. For him to win the presidency, he’ll have to get the Bachmann/Palen ticket to run as a third-party Tea-bagger, Ron/Rand Paul to run as a Libertarian, Ralph Nader to run as an Independent and Dennis Kucinich to run as a Socialist. They’ll drain off the extremist votes so he can get his 35%.

  7. Submitted by Richard Parker on 03/30/2011 - 11:54 am.

    Pawlenty was a current-events question on “Wait, Wait — Don’t Tell Me” last weekend, and once again it brought a wry smile and a shake of my head to hear him described as a boring, Minnesota Nice guy. We who live here know differently, right? But that’s the impression that’s out there nationwide.

    Regarding media analysis — “(and what the HELL ever happened to the kinds of substantive reporting that would tell the public what we need to know about anything)”: I’ve just come from a regular coffee gathering with other Strib retirees. Today we were five editors and three reporters, all but one of us having worked on the pre-merger Tribune. Two of the ex-reporters talked of how their jobs changed with the growth of the newspaper’s online component — necessarily, to be sure. Citing specific assignments, they pointed out that they were required to file immediate updates as the stories developed, and that prevented them from taking time to track down people involved for more information that would provide depth and background, as they had been used to doing. Back in the teletype days, “A deadline every minute” was the motto of the wire services. Now it applies everywhere. Would that papers could afford the staffing to put a team of reporters on every story, with one freed up to dig for depth.

  8. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/30/2011 - 01:21 pm.

    National media is on about the same level as TMZ with political reporting. Actually, TMZ probably does a better job of ferreting out the people behind the image. I sent an email to Chait after reading the TNR Pawlenty profile a couple of weeks ago, saying al the same stuff: never cracked 50 percent, presided over a toxically divisive political atmosphere and lots of hard feelings during budget showdown after budget showdown, no real plan for the state, left us with a huge deficit and declining popularity. No reply. My friend is an editor at Esquire. I wrote him after they ran the same profile of him everyone else runs. Told him all the same stuff. Ho-hum.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/30/2011 - 02:19 pm.

    @#3 “Bush and Reagan, even Palin to some extent proved that a governors actual record is irrelevant.”

    Actually, it was Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, the state that was 49th or 50th in everything, who proved that a governors actual record is irrelevant. He also made military service irrelevant, being the first post-war president not to have served.

  10. Submitted by Eric Larson on 03/30/2011 - 06:09 pm.

    Do we have a one post limit unless your comments are called in to question? Udstrand.
    Kapphahn- Edit thyself.

  11. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/30/2011 - 06:16 pm.

    Calling Minnesota a blue state is as stale as the deteriorating quality of life here. It’s been over ten years since the state has really invested in itself in any kind of progressive way. WE have a repubican legislature and it’s been twenty years since the last democratic governor. It’s constitutionally mandated the budget be balanced so that’s not a great achievment but managing to flush the state down the toilet in almost every category while doing it with spending cuts certainly is noteworthy. In fact Pawlenty’s colossal missteps are much more glaring than any single achievment (of which he has none). The 35W collapse and Molnau appointment to MNDOT Commissioner and the release of dangerous sex offenders into nursing homes and out on parole are the two most glaring. The disinvestment in our entire educational system and the demonization of teachers (arguably one of our best assets in terms of producing college ready graduates and selling our state) rate pretty high on his list of failures. His signature JOBZ program amounted to tax cuts for established Minnesota businesses while Q-comp was a statistical and philosophical failure. He took a promising, innovative health insurance program, MinnesotaCare, and defunded it and who can forget the list of his discredited commissioners from Education Commissioner Cherry Yoecke and Molnau to the Health Department Commissioner that hid results of mesothelioma surveys from the public and especially miners that could have used them to take steps to protect themselves. Wow, that’s a lot of bad commissioners. It is impossible for Pawlenty to run on anything but “no new taxes” as if that is any kind of concept at all but a way to put money into the pockets of the wealthy. His achievments can only be listed in light of the vague and incorrect assessment that he comes from a blue state. Eventually they’ll need more and realize there is nothing there but conservative zealotry behind the milk toast persona.

  12. Submitted by janet o'c on 03/30/2011 - 06:20 pm.

    “in the current Republican context “success” does not require any substantive improvement in the economy, health, educational outcomes or any other measure of the quality of life in Minnesota; success is defined almost entirely in vetoing tax increases and holding down the growth rate of government spending”

    This is because they have no desire for success in any of these areas. Their intent is to demolish these things so that they can be privatized. Too bad their party hasn’t gotten that figured out yet. Timmy, on the other hand, has it down pat.

  13. Submitted by David Willard on 03/30/2011 - 07:36 pm.

    The comments, like the articles on MinnPost seem to have devolved into a Left and More Left mantra over time. Left Behind is my reaction to Minnpost’s “Thoughtful Approach To News” goal. More like “Echo Chamber For The Kenwood Lefties.”

  14. Submitted by myles spicer on 03/30/2011 - 08:27 pm.

    What makes Pawlenty so dangerous as a conservative is that he projects the image as a moderate — yet his policies are as far right as any governor we have ever had (Minnesota Republican governors have been universally moderate).

    He has pleasant “boyish” looks; speaks rationally; rarely is over the top like Bachmann or Palin; and projects a “rational” image. But his actions belie his words and image. The devastation he rained on our state in his years in office will not be healed for years or decades to come. As president, he would be frightenly scary if he pursued similar policies nationally. No thanks!

  15. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 03/30/2011 - 09:12 pm.

    Pawlenty didn’t run for reelection as Gov. because of the following. No matter how much Pawlenty tries to rewrite history his legacy is a $6,000,000,000 debt and after two terms he had zero notable accomplishments.

    Let me remind Pawlenty what his real resume is. If Pawlenty were able to think of himself objectively here is what he would come up with. I’m was able to kick the can down the road in hopes of someone else getting to handle the problems, I’m so happy it worked for me. I excelled at trickery and deception. I didn’t raise taxes, just fees. I was frequently absent from the state as I was off serving myself. I’m incapable of working with others. I have one concern in my life, me. I will help you if you have deep pockets. I’m a political weasel. I was against the stimulus because the Republican talking points say I had to be against it but, I did however base 25% of my states budget on federal assistance. Now I can add I’m a supreme hypocrite. I’ve never won a gubernatorial election by majority vote. Even the GOP recognizes my value, I can’t beat Sarah Palin in GOP straw polls. I sound like a high school walking Republican talking point machine on Meet The Press. I sued the Federal government over health care reform so it will look good to my Republican friends. The Minnesota State Supreme Court has found I operated outside the law. After running hard for months I was able to get 1% of the Iowa Republican voters behind my awesome ideas. It is so hard for me as a hypocrite to keep it all straight. Who knows maybe this is the resume that will make me president so I can do good things for you too!

    It is amazing how small the package when they get all wrapped up in themselves.

  16. Submitted by Rod Loper on 03/31/2011 - 07:26 am.

    I can’t understand the persistence of the “nice
    guy” narrative. His snide putdowns of the democratic leadership during his terms as governor
    and his sexist comments about his wife at the fishing opener a few years back come to mind. This
    is no nice guy.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/31/2011 - 08:12 am.

    //Actually, it was Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, the state that was 49th or 50th in everything, who proved that a governors actual record is irrelevant.

    I’m willing to ad Clinton to the list, but I have to point out to my historically challenged nemesis that Reagan was elected years before Clinton.

    As for the “leftiness” of Minnpost- maybe. My thing is I don’t care about bias because bias can be detected and compensated for. I worry about accuracy and reliability and I’ve noticed that as a general rule liberals are more concerned about integrity and accuracy than contemporary conservatives as they are represented by Republicans. You can see correspondents here on Minnpost struggle to maintain accuracy and correct mistakes when they make them. The Republicans on the other hand only care about winning points, and they are perfectly willing to lie or at the very least treat the truth rather sloppily.

    As to the media’s reluctance to critically examine Pawlenty- “mainstream” media has always had this characteristic. Almost none of the major candidates ever get the critical attention they should. My theory has always been that it’s simple, owners are risk averse when it comes to politics and since they don’t know who’s gonna win, they avoid making enemies out of potentially elected officials. What say you media types around here? Isn’t is how Pawlenty got identified as a “likeable” guy a few years ago despite his severely mean spirited agenda and praxis?

  18. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 03/31/2011 - 08:41 am.

    As a Seward leftie, I think Mr Spicer (comment #13) hits the nail on the head as to why we should not underestimate Pawlenty.

    I agree that he can’t carry Minnesota, but I think he could carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, maybe even New Jersey, to say nothing of Indiana, Virgina, and North Carolina. Look at the extremists who got elected in those states in 2010. The only thing that would stop him would be a repeat of Obama’s 2008 organizing success among young voters and minorities, which is possible but no sure thing.

    I think the analogy to Clinton 1992 is instructive: in the face of an overwhelmingly popular president in early 1991, the strongest Democrats sat 1992 out leaving Clinton his opening. He was elected largely because of his political skills, not his policies. Pawlenty is no Clinton skill-wise, but do not underestimate him.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/02/2011 - 09:46 am.

    Pawlenty’s success was never to due to his acumen, it was the result of lame opposition. The question is how lame will his opposition be on the national level?

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