Gov. Tim Pawlenty opens nearly every speech with a joke. He even opened his news conference announcing that he wasn’t running again with a joke: Twins star catcher Joe Mauer was going to have to play for the Vikings to end the Brett Favre drama. After all, everyone is being asked to do more.
It wasn’t very funny.
Over the past four weeks, DFLers have grumbled and GOPers have gloated that Pawlenty was about to hit a political home run: No special session, no government shutdown. It was his greatest political opportunity, handed to him on a silver platter by the miscues of the DFL-led Legislature.
Now, as national and local pundits watch Pawlenty’s 2012 moves, the question about his greatest political opportunity will be this: Did he make the most of it?
Think of it this way: Is Pawlenty the Mauer of Minnesota politics? (Local boy makes good, national all-star, seems to pull out the big hit when he needs it.) Or is he another Chris Weineke? (Local boy, lots of hype, never lives up to the hype, has a moderately successful pro-football career.)
If Pawlenty were Mauer he would have swung for the fences, he would have taken the opportunity to re-shape Minnesota’s state government in the manner that he and conservatives have talked about for years. He could have done that by:
• Making deep cuts in state agencies and eliminating thousands of jobs, which would have been a major blow to unions.
• Cutting hot-button state-funded amenities such as cable TV in prisons.
• Eliminating local government aid to cities and counties, giving the governor and opportunity to espouse “local control.”
• Cutting transit funding to a level that would have forced prices to rise or possibly shut down some operations completely.
• Unallotting to a level that would result in a surplus by February, making Pawlenty look like a hero, locally and nationally.
Pawlenty is acting less like a rising star and more like a status-quo go-along-to-get-along governor, not someone who will take the steps that would prove his conservative credentials once and for all.
Pawlenty is starting to feel like Chris Weineke.
After all, the governor postponed or procrastinated 63 percent of the state budget shortfall to future years. (The $1.7 billion education shift is 63 percent of his solution.) And he delegated the tough decisions to the state higher education systems, cities and counties rather than taking the lead himself.
If Pawlenty was a Joe Mauer-like player, he would have taken his “Sam’s Club, Aw Shucks” conservatism and hit it out of the park. Instead, pundits will continue to wonder if he’s got the right stuff to play in Iowa in 2012 or if he’ll wear out his welcome like Favre in June 2009.
The day of reckoning has come and gone. The real-life impact of Pawlenty’s unallotment cuts will linger for the months and years, but the politics of the move are relatively short-term. That’s not good for Pawlenty’s national ambition.
Always politically minded, Pawlenty has probably weighed the risks of the media reporting heart-wrenching stories about people hurt by his cuts. But with every risk comes an opportunity.
An analysis of Pawlenty’s cuts presents a picture of either a moderate Republican, facing few choices and trying to delay as much pain as possible, or a wanna-be conservative whose bark is louder than his bite.
Politically, Pawlenty has missed his chance to be the national star that he pines to be.