In retrospect, we should have known that Tim Pawlenty would be resuming his role of governor of Minnesota when he canceled Aug. 28 a round of appearances tied to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
As Pawlenty said later, he knew when he arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport that evening that he was toast. Certainly the KSTP-TV footage of him walking through the airport alone, and the governor’s strained smile in addressing a reporter, portrayed a man who just lost a ballgame of some sort.
But the truth is, though he’s not John McCain’s pick to help usher the GOP ticket into the White House, Pawlenty might be sitting pretty, politically speaking. The governor has been thoroughly vetted by GOP big wigs, still exudes a certain benign charm in the national media, and can honestly say he’s held the hard line on taxes while showing nominal interest in one of the issues of the day, alternative energy sources.
He might be, as some have conjectured, ripe for a cabinet post in the McCain administration.
On the other hand, those who have known Pawlenty throughout his political career have many good things to say about his political intellect and incisiveness, but they also make it clear that he oozes ambition. Couple that with a man who got close enough to the vice presidential nomination and the White House that he might have ordered new business cards, and you could guess that he’d certainly like another crack at it.
So, presidential candidate Pawlenty might not be such a stretch, but the main problem with that—though hardly the only one—is this political phenomenon the world now knows as Sarah Palin.
“He came out of this not with the brass ring,” Minnesota GOP delegate Brian Sullivan said after Pawlenty’s Thursday night to the Republican National Convention, “but with an option on the brass ring.”
But that depends, really, on what brass ring Pawlenty chooses—and others aren’t so convinced the one available is the one the governor wants.
“This has had an enormous impact on his presidential prospects,” said David Schultz, who teaches politics and government at Hamline University in St. Paul. “His presidential ambition and his presidential prospects went two different directions in the last week.”
The competitive personality
Little more than a week ago, some local Republicans were saying that Pawlenty’s chances of being McCain’s pick were somewhere in the 90 percent zone. Because of that, some were given to reflecting on how he would come to be, at the young age of 47, elected to the vice presidency of the United States.
“He has a personality that allows him to be competitive,” Steve Sviggum, the former speaker of the Minnesota House, told me last week. Sviggum, widely known to be Pawlenty’s tightest political confidante, said the two are “very, very close” and counted Pawlenty as “my best friend” while the two were working at the Capitol together.
Sviggum recalled how the two would jog five or six miles a day when they were both in the House (Pawlenty was the House majority leader from 1998 until his gubernatorial victory in 2002), and that Pawlenty, ceding nothing to his running partner 10 years his senior, would fly by him, Rocky-like, up the steps of the Capitol.
“You can see the competitive nature in him,” Sviggum told me. “And you can also see how he’s so good at framing an issue, and then using that for clear decision-making.”
If that confluence of ambition and certitude are Pawlenty’s twin political markers—and he is arguably the craftiest politician in the state, including the Washington delegation—then his current situation must be driving him nuts.
Consider that Palwenty is the highest-profile Minnesota politician in two decades, since Walter Mondale was a Democratic vice president and then a failed presidential candidate.
(Paul Wellstone, for all the cult-cred he acheived, was never welcomed into the national spotlight by his own Democratic Party, as Pawlenty has been over the last six months. And though few Minnesota pols can top Jesse Ventura in name recognition, Jesse has never been close to going to Washington.)
The Pawlenty name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue—from the beltway to Phoenix—just two weeks ago. And he played good soldier, taking swings at Barack Obama and never uttering a discouraging word when he didn’t make the cut.
“He’s good enough to be on the top of the ticket,” said Betsy Wergin, a state senator from Princeton who was also an alternate delegate to the GOP convention. “He’s not done yet.”
But delegate Sullivan, who ran against Pawlenty for the GOP’s gubernatorial nod in 2002, acknowledged that Pawlenty hardly enthralled delegations from other states with his speech Thursday.
“People know him in a sense among those that are paying attention,” Sullivan said, noting two former governors who have had presidential aspirations. “Obviously, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are better known in the national camp.”
Of course, none of them have the marquee value now of Palin, who, as Sullivan acknowledged, “overshadows McCain.” And if, as another Minnesota delegate to the convention, Chris Jacobson, said Thursday night.: “He is very special. Right now it’s just not his day.”
When will his day be? “Four years is a short time,” Wergin said. Then what?
Drafting him for a third term?
The timing for Pawlenty to figure out his political road map from here on out couldn’t be worse. He’s in the middle of a second term, which will expire in 2010. If he indeed has national ambitions as much speculation says, he needs to figure a way to, as Hamline’s Schultz puts it, “stay in the spotlight” until 2012. That year, coincidentally, is not just the next presidential election cycle, but also when U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, is up for reelection.
Earlier in the week of the convention, some state GOPers were trying to move on from whatever understandable disappointment might linger after Pawlenty didn’t get the slot on the ticket by playing up his bona fides as governor.
“I’ve talked to him a lot,” Dave Senjem, the state Senate’s minority leader, told me. “I’ve urged him to run for another term. We want him in our state, leading our state.”
Sullivan said: “He could run again, though there’s some risk in that. I hope that he would think hard before not running.”
There’s a lot at stake. “He faces several risks,” Schultz said. “First, it’s hard to win a third term. The track record on that is not successful.”
Schultz said that to his knowledge, three consecutive terms for governor had never been won in Minnesota. “People’s political capital wanes after a while,” Schultz explained. “There’s a sense that two terms is enough.”
Schultz also pointed out that Pawlenty’s two victories were “tough,” and that neither in 2002 or in 2006 did Pawlenty capture 50 percent of the vote. And both times, two events—Democrat Judi Dutcher’s E85 gaffe in 2006 and Wellstone’s plane crash in 2002—influenced the election.
“He was one of the chief beneficiaries of that crash,” according to Schultz.
What’s more, the state House seats are up for election this year, and there’s some who believe that the House DFLers, like their counterparts in the state Senate already have, could capture enough seats for a veto-proof majority. Right now, there are 85 Democrats to 49 Republicans in the House. The DFL would need to pick up five seats to have the veto-proof majority.
“They may have a good shot at picking up two,” Schultz said. “Five would be tough, but if the DFL can coordinate something with a couple Republicans, they could start to do things.”
What would Pawlenty’s gubernatorial chances look like after two years of having his veto stamp rendered all but useless? And, presuming the majorities stick, would he want to go back for more?
If McCain wins
Everyone in the GOP obviously wants the McCain/Palin ticket to soar to the White House. And everyone assumes that Pawlenty would be on McCain’s short list for any number of appointments—the guy was the Arizona senator’s short list of for running mate, after all.
Conventional wisdom would be a cabinet post, but that may not suit Pawlenty.
“Tim came to a split,” said Vic Ellison, who first appointed Pawlenty to the Eagan planning commission while Ellison was mayor in the mid-1980s and then helped Pawlenty win a seat on the Eagan City Council. “And he chose politics over policy.”
Sullivan said that “some people have talked cabinet post, but [Pawlenty] doesn’t have much interest in that. He’s raised himself to the upper tier of national politics.”
Schultz agrees that Pawlenty doesn’t seem like cabinet material, unless it was a post for something high profile. “Secretary of Energy makes the most sense,” Schultz said, mostly because it promises to be a defining issue and Pawlenty has already made nominal moves toward embracing green technologies. “The joke is that the least likely would be secretary of Transportation.”
But there’s another problem with taking a cabinet post: Secretaries rarely, if ever, make the leap to the presidency. Schultz couldn’t think of one who had. Is it a dead-end for any presidential aspirant? “Exactly.”
(In recent memory, Minnesota has boasted only one cabinet member, Orville Freeman, who headed the agriculture department under President John F. Kennedy. His White House experience was limited to being on the periphery of Camelot.)
Then there is, suddenly for Pawlenty, the Palin problem. If McCain wins, it will almost certainly to be chalked up to his stroke of genius in picking the little-known Alaska governor. Though Pawlenty is still loved by his Minnesota followers, and liked well enough in national GOP circles, he can’t compete with Palin power. Short of footage of Sarah clubbing a baby seal—and who’s to say there isn’t any—a fall from grace doesn’t seem likely at this point.
“If McCain wins, and whether he lasts four years or eight years, Palin’s still got to be the front-running Republican in succession,” Schultz said. “Even though [Pawlenty’s] young, we’re maybe looking at 2016.”
Schultz, like many of the Minnesota delegates, didn’t rule out the possibility of a Palin-Pawlenty ticket in the future, but how would the competitive soul described by Pawlenty’s old buddy Sviggum take to that?
If Obama wins
If American voters choose to elect Barack Obama as the next POTUS, then Pawlenty will still face the same challenges that Palin presents today. What’s more, any presidential aspirations Pawlenty might have would be carried out in 2012, which would be smack in the middle of a third gubernatorial term, should Pawlenty seek and win one.
Then there is the Obama problem. Schultz noted that unseating an incumbent president is a rare feat—could Pawlenty pull off a ’92 Bill Clinton?
“Does he challenge a sitting incumbent like Barack Obama?” Schultz asked. “Bush in ’04 was the weakest incumbent in decades, and the Democrats couldn’t beat him.”
Schultz noted the 2012 U.S. Senate race. “It becomes his best option,” he said. That way, Pawlenty avoids the challenge of a third-term bid at the state level, arrives on the stage in Washington, and can use both experiences to his political advantage: He knows the ropes in D.C., and can claim chief executive experience as a governor, which has been a more valuable pathway into presidential politics.
Trumpeting gubernatorial experience certainly helped Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, of Massachusetts and Arkansas, respectively, during the caucus and primary season. But Schultz pointed out that they had been out of office before their presidential bids. “Look where they are now,” Schultz added. “And Pawlenty doesn’t have the millions that Romney spent just getting his name out there. What’s he going to do for money, go back to his small law practice?”
Sullivan, for one, has raised the idea of Pawlenty starting a PAC. “That doesn’t mean that he’s seeking national office,” Sullivan said, “it just means he has thrown the option out there.”
“A PAC’s not a bad idea,” Schultz agreed, adding that Pawlenty “is not a think-tank guy.” “That way, he can have donors fly him around to speeches and talk about topics and issues. And the PAC can contribute to Republicans, so he can stockpile favors.”
But among voters, he’d likely vanish from memory during a two-year layoff. “He has to figure a way to keep his name in the spotlight,” Schultz concluded.
Then there is the matter of Klobuchar herself. The jury may be out on the first-term senator, but she’s known to have ambition that may even outstrip Pawlenty’s. She also has statewide name recognition, a centrist stance, and a vague reputation as a Republican vanquisher, handily defeating Mark Kennedy in the 2002 Senate race.
“That would be a very tough race for him,” Schultz said of Pawlenty vs. Klobuchar. “It would be tough for both of them.”
So now what for the man sometimes known as Teflon Tim? Pawlenty has a cunning political mind, and a competitive spirit that makes it a fool’s game to count him out. But no doubt, now that he got through a tough RNC week by not being the VP pick, he’s wrestling with his ambitions and their viability.
“Pawlenty’s not a rich person, and Pawlenty’s not a policy person, so what does he do?” Schultz said. “I have this cartoon image in my head of him sitting on a park bench, twiddling his thumbs.”
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.