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Pawlenty offers truisms about our problems, but little about his future

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty analyzed the problems facing America in terms that no one could dispute.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty

I’m not saying that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty bet a friend that he could talk for an hour and half on Monday at the Humphrey Center and make absolutely no news. I’m just saying that if he did make such a bet, he definitely collected.

Pawlenty analyzed the problems facing America in terms that no one could dispute.

The federal government can’t continue indefinitely to increase spend at a rate of growth higher than the rate of growth of the national economy, Pawlenty said. The three big entitlement programs are growing at an unsustainable rate and “we have to deal with” them, although not in ways that would affect that at or near retirement.

For the generation younger than retirees and near-retirees, the retirement age for full Social Security benefits will have to be gradually raised and some means testing of benefits will have to be introduced so that, for example, wealthier retirees might not get the full upward Cost of Living Adjustment that less wealthy Social Security beneficiaries get.

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More choices will have to be added to Medicare (although Pawlenty added the common Republican trope that one of the choices will be the existing Medicare structure which, if you think about it, undermines the whole idea). Medicaid (which is already a state/federal program) should perhaps be turned into a block-grant program for states to operate and use the states as laboratories to find the best way.

Big problems

But these are very big problems, TPaw allowed, and to solve them will require “consensus, crisis or gifted leadership.” He didn’t say which of those was most likely. So much for “Entitlements,” which I spell with a capital “E” because our former governor had decided to build his presentation around four “E” words.

The second was “Energy,” and on that the news was very, very good. Enough natural gas has been discovered in the United States and Canada to meet our energy needs for the next 150 years, and yes, cars can run on it. Former Gov. Pawlenty did not mention the word “fracking,” which, if I understand correctly, is not a mild expletive.

E word No. 3 was “Education,” and here Pawlenty was edgier. The best way to get better educational outcomes would be to have more engaged parents among the disadvantaged groups and classes, but “we can’t legislate good parenting.” But teacher contracts are within the reach of governments. Teachers have to be paid on some basis other than pure seniority and we have to have some ability to get rid of the bad ones, Pawlenty said.

E word No. 4 was “Enterprise,” the free kind. Seventy percent of free enterprise job growth comes from small- and medium-sized companies, he said (which I’m sure is true, depending on who gets to define “medium-sized”). And when you talk to the captains of these levels of industry and ask them what it would take to get them to create more jobs, they will all tell you some combination of lower taxes, less regulation, reduced energy costs and other things that government can influence.

But, because he did not want to lose that imaginary bet, he didn’t specify which taxes had to be cut or which regulations abolished.

The snotty tone of this post is starting to annoy even me. In fact, the paragraphs above accurately present what Pawlenty said Monday.

I should have mentioned that Pawlenty sounded good and looked really great in jeans and cowboy boots topped with a blue blazer and no tie. He spoke flowingly, without notes, and with occasional small witticisms, but mostly just like a reasonable man explaining the problems facing our country.

I suppose, since Pawlenty fairly recently ran for president, and even more recently has traveled around the country a great deal in his role as a surrogate for presumptive Repub nominee Mitt Romney, it was natural to assume that Pawlenty would engage in bombastic statements promoting Romney and/or attacking Obama. In fact, he barely mentioned either the president or the man who would be president.

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Romney running mate?

There is also a certain amount of curiosity in political circles about whether TPaw sees himself as a potential Romney running mate (although he has said repeatedly that he doesn’t) or perhaps a cabinet member. (I personally asked him about that idea and he replied that a number of former governors who served in the cabinet have not enjoyed the experience.) And, more parochially, might he run in 2014 either to get his old governor job back to or try to be the Republican who will take on Sen. Al Franken? “Haven’t ruled anything in or out,” was the reply, no matter how many clever ways the question was asked.

Political scientist Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey Center and the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, which put on the event, spent the final 30 minutes of Monday’s program interrogating the former guv, but TPaw continued to stick to truisms.

He expressed perhaps mild regret about polarization, but said that small groups on the left and the right serve as gatekeepers to the political process and the only way out of that is for more people to be willing to sit through those god-awful political meetings until their influence is felt. He refused to diss the Ron Paul people. He said the presidential election is really about 15 percent of the potential voters in about eight likely swing states because everyone either doesn’t vote, always votes for the same party or lives in a state where the same party always gets the electoral votes. Sad but true dat.

He said that based on his own analysis Romney is either even or slightly ahead.

When Jacobs suggested that Pawlenty had moved right on certain issues in order to run for president, Pawlenty cracked “you mean I evolved?”

And, perhaps his profoundest insight of the day, he expressed little hope for a grand left-right compromise because the sides are too far apart and said “one side or the other is going to substantially prevail to get quantum change.”