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Bad etiquette: Why is Pawlenty bashing the stimulus package?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proudly giving out federal stimulus money for highway projects with one hand while bashing the program with the other. Why?

When we were kids, our mothers taught most of us that we should accept gifts – even those we weren’t excited about – with graciousness.

“When your aunt gave you socks that you didn’t care about,” said etiquette expert Teri Gustafson, “your mother probably explained to you that your aunt was being thoughtful; that she was thinking of you when she bought the socks and that you should show your appreciation for her thoughtfulness.”

This subject about gift giving and socks came to mind as Gov. Tim Pawlenty toured the state Wednesday, proudly giving out federal stimulus money for highway projects with one hand while bashing the program with the other.

“These road and highway projects are exactly the kind of bread and butter projects that we should have seen more of in the federal stimulus package,” said the governor as he traveled from Rochester to Mankato to Cambridge to Duluth and St. Paul talking about the 60 state highway projects that would be started soon because of $596 million stimulus dollars that the feds are sending Minnesota’s way.

In the next breath, however, Pawlenty was bashing the federal stimulus program.

“Unfortunately, only $27.5 billion of the $787 billion bill funds highway improvements,” the governor said.

Quite honestly, the governor who usually seems so civil, so polite, sounded quite boorish.

“Like he was biting the hand that feeds him?” suggested Steve Schier, political science professor at Carleton College.

Exactly.

Wanting it both ways
Pawlenty has been consistently inconsistent about his views of the stimulus package. The people who he has appointed to put together Minnesota’s budget have stated they’ll gladly help fill the state’s massive budget hole with federal money. Meantime, Pawlenty, and other Republican leaders, have publicly criticized the very program that’s bailing them out.

“Politicians always want it both ways,” said Schier. “They can get away with that when nobody’s looking.”

But, of course, virtually everybody’s watching now because we’re all in the same economic mess.

Though budget cuts at major media outlets have all but eliminated polling in Minnesota, it seems likely that the vast majority of Minnesotans support President Obama’s economic program. Obama, after all, did carry this state by 10 points. Nationally polling shows that nearly two-thirds of the people in the country approve of the job the president is doing.

“Usually, a popular Democratic president polls higher in Minnesota than in the rest of the country,” said Schier.

And that means as many as 75 per cent of Minnesotans may well approve of President Obama – at least at this at moment.

So why is Pawlenty spending so much time carping at a popular president?

“He’s speaking to the GOP base in Minnesota and the rest of the country,” said Schier. “But  the Minnesota economy is in bad shape. Conservative thinking is not exactly in style right now.”

‘Bill is not a gift’
It should be noted that the governor’s spokesman, Brian McClung, finds fault with the whole premise. This isn’t like bad-mouthing auntie for giving you another pair of socks.

“The funding of the federal stimulus bill is not a gift,” McClung said. “Minnesota is a major net contributor to the federal government. We receive only 72 cents in federal spending for every $1 sent to Washington, D.C., from our state. Even though many lawmakers in Washington seem to act like the billions of dollars in the stimulus plan are created from thin air, they’re not. We’re all going to be paying for it one way or another and Minnesota pays a big share. If you’re paying for something, it’s appropriate to express your preferences about the quality, cost and content.”

OK, even if you accept the premise this isn’t a gift, should the governor constantly be saying he doesn’t like the socks?

Go back to Gustafson, the etiquette expert.

“He probably doesn’t need to make the critical comments [when he’s passing out the money],” she said.  “People understand where this is coming from. They understand that it’s coming from the stimulus package and is merely passing through the governor’s hands.”

But she was quick to add, “etiquette in politics is probably different than it is in the rest of society.”