If you’re wondering how seriously to take the presidential ambitions of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, watch Vin Weber.
At the moment, Weber, the former Minnesota congressman and now consummate Washington insider, has stepped away from Mitt Romney and aligned himself with the governor, accepting the position of co-chair of Pawlenty’s Freedom First Political Action Committee. The success of that PAC, which held its first major fundraisers in Washington last week, will tell Weber and the rest of us if Pawlenty has what it takes to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
“If his committee is successful,” said Weber in a telephone interview, “I absolutely believe he’ll run.”
How do you judge the success of Freedom First?
“It must raise money and attract support, support his travel on behalf of candidates across the country, all of those things,” said Weber. “At the end of the day, he’ll make a judgment. If it makes sense, he’ll do it. But he’s very level-headed. Very clear-eyed. It’s not a done deal by any stretch.”
Meantime, Weber is not burning bridges.
“I want him to succeed,” Weber said. “But I like a lot of people: Mitt Romney, John Thune, Newt Gingrich. I wouldn’t discourage anybody.”
Weber a big mover in inner circles
Still, for now, he’s with Pawlenty. No small thing for the Minnesota governor because Weber moves in the headiest of circles.
Weber’s the favorite conservative for the media elite in Washington to turn to. He’s friends with the mighty of both parties – Gingrich and Romney on the right hand, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the left. He has some money (he’s managing partner of Clark & Weinstock, a D.C. lobbying firm) and knows people with big money. He has ties to academia, (he’s a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute).
Weber even has some direct influence on the current administration as a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Board.
“I’m the person who does not belong in this picture,” said Weber, who became a member of the board during the George W. Bush years. “There’s a former secretary of state, three former secretaries of defense, a couple of former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then there’s me. People must wonder, ‘What’s he doing there?’ I’m the only one in the room who is a Vikings fan.”
The board meets four times a year to review an agenda set by the secretary of Defense ,who then consults with its members.
“The meetings are confidential, of course,” said Weber. And the meetings are not partisan.
“I think that in areas of national security policy, most people understand that we need bipartisanship,” said Weber.
All of these connections for a guy from Slayton, Minn., who ended up leaving Congress in 1992 with a slight shadow over his career from what was known as the House of Representatives banking scandal. Members of Congress routinely were writing checks on overdrawn accounts, with the House bank covering them. Both Democrats and Republicans came under criticism for using the unofficial perk.
The overdrafts, along with a redrawing of district lines, contributed to the defeat of Minnesota Rep. Gerry Sikorski, a five-termer who lost to Republican Rod Grams after it was revealed that Sikorski had written 697 overdrawn checks. Weber floated far fewer checks, which, it should be noted, always ended up being covered by the members.
“Our monthly pay went straight into the House bank,” Weber said. “When all the investigations were done, nothing came of it.”
Still, the public was disgusted. Most don’t like it when pols can get away with stuff the rest of us can’t.
The negative headlines weren’t the reason he decided to leave the Congress, though, Weber said. But the publicity didn’t encourage him to stay, either.
“It made the environment of being in politics different,” Weber said, “but I think if I would have run, I would have won.”
But after a dozen years in Congress (he was just 28 when he left the staff of Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and won election to Congress in 1980), he said he wanted the chance to spend more time with his family and also to make more money.
Was part of his plan to become a big-time insider?
“I had no plan,” said Weber.
But, according to University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs, Weber had a huge asset.
“He’s filled with intelligence and depth,” said Jacobs, whose political beliefs are vastly different from Weber’s.
And he doesn’t take political philosophy personally, Jacobs said.
“Sadly, we’ve come to a point in our time when, too often, you disagree with somebody’s political beliefs it becomes a feud. … He’s one of the top two conservative intellectuals in the country. When you have a conversation with him, you can learn things.”
Funny thing about leaving Congress. Weber didn’t lose influence; he gained it. He’s credited with helping Gingrich create the “Gingrich revolution” of 1994. He became a regular on media venues across the radio and television dials. He became a strategist and policy person behind everyone from George W. Bush to Romney and now Pawlenty.
His move to Pawlenty, Jacobs believes, shows that a significant portion of Weber’s soul never left Minnesota. Married with two daughters, the Webers have a home in Alexandria, Va., but also keep a home in Walker, Minn., where “we spend as much time as possible.” In Minnesota, Weber fishes, including making one ice-fishing trek a year, and cheers mightily for the Vikings.
Balancing Minnesota roots and Washington skills
Jacobs said he believes his current support of Pawlenty shows Weber’s Minnesota roots winning over his “Washington skills.”
“He’s very skilled at working the Washington system,” said Jacobs. “But with his personal ethic, he’s very dedicated to Minnesota. I think this shows a struggle between his Washington skill and his personal ethic.”
Weber’s own version of events – the move away, at least temporarily, from Romney to Pawlenty – support Jacobs’ theory.
“At the end of the day, I’m a Minnesotan,” said Weber, “and he [Pawlenty] is a tremendous talent. He has a lot to add to the national picture, and I want to be helpful. I do not think of it as turning my back on Gov. Romney. I think of Pawlenty as a truly outstanding Minnesotan. The first great [Republican] since 1948 and Harold Stassen. He has a lot to contribute to the national debate.”
Weber is the first to admit that the Republicans are in shambles following huge losses in the last two elections.
“The Republican Party is looking for a message,” said Weber. “The good news is a lot of people are competing for the role of creating that message. That wasn’t the case 10 months ago.”
He’s heard the criticism that the party is simply saying “no” to anything being presented by President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. He doesn’t dispute that but says that a unified “no” is the beginning of “getting up off the mat.”
“Unity to the opposition is not jaded or cynical,” said Weber. “For now, it’s the most important thing against the dominant Democrats. That’s not enough for the long run. The party will have to develop spokespeople and messages to a broad range of voters. But things happen in their own good time.”
Where does Pawlenty fit into the picture in rebuilding the party? It’s the great unknown.
“The advantage he has, the unique space, is that even though we know him in Minnesota, to most of the country he is the newest face,” said Weber. “That’s also an obstacle – that’s why he registers at 4 percent in polls. But it’s an opportunity, too. He can represent generational change in the Republican Party.”
Signs of traction?
There are signs, Weber said, that Pawlenty is gaining traction.
“I look at his schedule,” Weber said, “and everybody wants him to come to their state.”
Still, there is much to prove.
“He has to show the ability to put together an organization that can be scaled (to the size of the campaign). He has to show an ability to attract financial and political support across the country. He’s never had to do that.”
In addition to helping Pawlenty connect with the big players, Weber believes his main role will be advising Pawlenty on foreign policy matters. (Weber, it should be noted, was – and is – a supporter of the war in Iraq, but he agrees with the charges that candidate Obama made during his campaign that the Bush administration lost track of Afghanistan while focusing exclusively on Iraq.)
But, Weber predicts, foreign policy will not be the big issue of the 2010 off-year election. The size of government, taxes and national debt will be the issues Republicans focus on in that campaign.
It’s in these months leading up to next year’s elections that Pawlenty will likely rise or fade away.
If Weber’s still aligned with Pawlenty a year from now, the governor’s fortunes will have been rising.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.