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Tim Pawlenty makes pleasant — even sweet — public appearance

The former Minnesota governor offers potentially insightful points about the GOP race for president at a University of Minnesota event.


Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s speech at the U of M’s Humphrey School via The UpTake.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a relatively rare, extremely pleasant — even sweet — appearance at the U of M’s Humphrey School. Friday’s event was also utterly devoid of what we in the journalism game refer to as “news value,” unless you had fallen for the slight pre-event hype suggesting that Republican Pawlenty might make some kind of an announcement about some kind of future political plans. He didn’t.

What kind of weird word is “sweet” for an event like this? Start with the introduction by Steve Sviggum. Sviggum now teaches what he calls “Governing Minnesota Style” at the Humphrey School. As GOP speaker of the Minnesota House in the early 2000s, Sviggum worked closely with Pawlenty, who served as his majority leader.

“The individual who I have here with me today, I love,” said Sviggum, violating the norms of his ancestral culture. “He is the most decent person I’ve ever met in my life.” Pawlenty, before opening his prepared remarks, looked at Sviggum and said, “Love you back.”

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How un-newsworthy was the event? On the issue of his political future, Pawlenty said “I consider myself politically retired,” without even making any kind of Shermanesque pronouncement that would be a barrier to re-entering his former trade at some future time if he chooses. (In fact, I think he specified that he wasn’t ruling anything out.)

So his “politically retired” remark was news only to those who entered the day believing he might say something concrete about a political comeback (which, as I mentioned, had received a little pre-hype suggesting that he might, until he didn’t).

The Strib, the Pi-Press and the AP reporters were all stuck leading with Pawlenty’s musings on the likely future of the Republican presidential nomination race, which ended being nothing more than the current conventional wisdom: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is likely to be the favorite of the party establishment; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems at the moment well-position to emerge as the favorite of the various factions that want a more hard-line conservative nominee. The only “news” here is that Pawlenty currently sees things about the way the punditocracy does.

The Walker factor

But in discussing Walker’s recent rise to (at least temporary) front-runnership among the Republican right, Pawlenty did say one thing I kinda liked about Walker. Walker’s alleged appeal and record of success in Wisconsin have been invisible to me and I have had trouble understanding what the fuss was about. Pawlenty said Walker might succeed over some of the other righties in the field because, running in Wisconsin, he had had to develop the knack for “communicating red messages in blue places.”

My mind immediately went to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a few others from the last round whose entire careers were in such deep red states that they had never learned how to tamp down the rhetoric so it didn’t sound too crazy or radical to those who weren’t entirely playing for the red team. I’m not sure if Pawlenty’s point is a good one, but I’ll be listening to the next few rounds of the get-to-know-Scott-Walker tour with this in mind.

Pawlenty went a little deeper into pundit territory with another potentially insightful point. Part of the Republican right is libertarian, which is quite a different group, ideologically, from Tea Party types, military hawks and social conservatives. Rand Paul starts out as the choice of libertarians and will get at least a chunk of support in many states. If Pawlenty’s insights above are correct, Paul will eventually drop out and libertarians in the late-voting states will probably decide they prefer Walker to Bush. But, Pawlenty said, “a lot depends on when the libertarian candidate drops out of the race.”

I take that to mean that if Bush consolidates the mainstream business wing of the party while the right wingers continue to split up the vote among factions, Bush may have the nomination locked up before Walker (or whoever is the surviving challenger) can consolidate all the elements of the right. (I suppose something like this happened last time, with Mitt Romney playing the Bush role and various rightier challengers dividing up the base for too long.)

The other Pawlenty line I liked from his presentation was that “most public policy issues come down to a tension between equality, liberty, efficiency or security.” It covers a lot of issues, and the words cover a multitude of sins, but the list, after the first one, is actually slightly stacked in favor of words that excite Repubs more than Dems.

Self-mockery

Sviggum prompted Pawlenty to talk a bit about his own ill-fated run for the nomination in 2012, which Pawlenty did with likeable self-mockery. He’d be surprised if anyone was very interested in his presidential run which, he said, “lasted about 10 minutes.” He also said it “lasted about as long as a Kardashian marriage,” although this turns out to be a line he’s been delivering since soon after he withdrew from the race.

For what it’s worth, Pawlenty was once viewed as a possible difference-maker in the contest but ended up withdrawing long before the first primary or caucus. He did discuss on Friday the one big strategic blunder that his campaign made. The strategy had called for him to make a splash, as a neighboring state governor, in the famous (and highly overrated) Ames, Iowa, Straw Poll, which would draw the attention and support he needed to become a factor.

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Once Michele Bachmann entered the race — another Minnesotan, an actual Iowa native and a right-wing firebrand — Pawlenty (Pawlenty said) should have revised the strategy and saved his resources. Bachmann,  who also flamed out of the race early, but not as early as Pawlenty, won the straw poll and picked up all the momentary attention and support as her prize, leaving Pawlenty’s campaign momentumless and broke.

Pawlenty currently works as CEO of The Financial Services Roundtable, which lobbies for the financial industry. He took the job after the meltdown of the late George W. Bush era in which his new industry played a big part, and he didn’t soft-pedal that: “Awful behavior” by some in the industry contributed to the worst recession in recent history and “no organization should be too big to fail; no person should be too big to jail.”

The industry he now represents must surely be near the front lines of the war against cyber threats, and he thinks the government should be doing more. Imagine, he suggested, a hacker that could get into hospital computer files and change blood types of patients in hospital databases. Imagine a cyber criminal who was able to move the decimal point over one space on every dollar figure in bank records. “This is an area where the government needs to be over the tip of their skis, and we’re behind.”