What does Gov. Tim Pawlenty really believe?
The question has surrounded the governor for eight years but never loomed larger than in the last week, when he’s made decisions that could cost Minnesota about $1 billion in federal money.
In his latest move, the governor issued an executive order “to stop Minnesota’s participation in projects that are laying the groundwork for a federally controlled health care system.”
• He constantly has complained that Minnesotans are getting back just 72 cents on every dollar being sent to Washington.
• In trying to address the state’s huge budget deficits, the governor repeatedly has stated that the health and human services costs are “unsustainable.”
Pawlenty only governor to reject health dollars
Yet, now he’s become the only governor in the land who says he will reject dollars that seemingly would address both of these problems.
Was this decision based on core conservative beliefs, or was it simply pandering to the most conservative base of his party as Pawlenty continues to pursue presidential ambitions?
Not surprisingly, opinions are divided.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak likely echoes the belief of many moderate to liberal Minnesotans who don’t really believe that Pawlenty is as conservative as he has been portraying himself.
“I always worked on the assumption that he doesn’t believe many of the things he’s said,” Rybak said. “I think a lot of people have cut him slack over the years. They say, ‘Ah, he’s just playing politics.’ But this most recent thing [the executive order], if he doesn’t believe it, that’s a lot of cynicism.”
DFL legislators have pointed out that the executive order is more a grand gesture than a meaningful act. Given the governor’s lame-duck status and the way legislation was written in the last session, the likelihood that the state actually will lose out on much money is small.
Still, it’s a huge decision for a governor to make, which brings back the question: Does Pawlenty actually believe what he says?
David Hann is a Republican state senator from Eden Prairie. Although he says he doesn’t know the governor well, the Hanns and the Pawlentys attend the same church, and Hann has had several chances to speak with Pawlenty both inside and outside the Capitol.
Hann, who sought his party’s gubernatorial endorsement, believes that Pawlenty is a real-deal conservative and that he’s not “pandering” to a national base.
Some conservatives unsure about his views, too
Hann noted that it’s not only Minnesota moderates and liberals who question Pawlenty’s sincerity. Many conservatives do, too.
“During the [Republican] state convention, many conservative delegates expressed their doubts about the governor’s conservatism,” Hann said. “I would always disagree. You never find totally uniform beliefs, but I would always say he consistently has stood for conservative beliefs. What some of the conservative delegates objected to is his rhetoric. He isn’t bold enough in what he says, not as in your face as some would like him to be.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer is much more to the liking of those conservatives than Pawlenty.
Laughing, Hann said, “When I was doing the governor thing, I was often accused of being Pawlenty-esque. Because I’m not an in-your-face person, I was seen by some as being moderate. But I think sometimes the stage-craft of politics is not always helpful. If your goal is to govern a majority, if your goal is to get people to consider what you have to say, I think it makes more sense to be thoughtful in your approach.”
What of the executive order to build a symbolic wall around Minnesota when it comes to federal health care? Does that make sense, from a conservative perspective?
Hann believes it’s absolutely a good decision, which also will appeal to conservatives.
He uses the analogy of an alcoholic when talking about federal funds the state would receive for health care.
“They’re selling an alcoholic liquor by the drink,” Hann said. “Here’s one more little thing we [the feds] are giving you. More and more people are giving up on the idea of a limited federal government.”
But it should be noted that even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce wants Pawlenty to take at least a little sip from the federal medical reform cup. The chamber’s president, David Olson, “strongly encouraged” the governor to request the $1 million planning grant to do market research on a “possible” health insurance exchange. Olson pointed out that by requesting the $1 million, the governor wasn’t accepting the concept of the exchange but only getting money to study the impact such an exchange might have. The exchange, Olson wrote, might be beneficial to the state’s small businesses.
It’s not yet clear what the governor is doing in this case. The initial grant request deadline was Wednesday, although it would be possible for the state to file for an extension.
Phil Krinkie, a former Republican legislator and now head of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, is a bit more nuanced on Pawlenty’s most recent executive order.
Krinkie certain of Pawlenty’s conservative core values
For starters, Krinkie believes that Pawlenty is — and always has been — a conservative to the core. He also believes that Pawlenty has been “mapping” a possible path to the White House for two years.
But this decision to reject even early-stage “Obamacare,” is both philosophically comfortable and strategically advantageous for Pawlenty, Krinkie believes.
“He’s astute — he’s got a game plan [for higher office],” Krinkie said. “When you’re in the league he’s playing in, you respond to the current situation. National polls show that people have a negative opinion of Obamacare. So what’s a guy going to do? You adjust to what’s on the field.”
This executive order is perfect for what Pawlenty needs to do politically, Krinkie said. For starters, polls currently show former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leading the Republican field. But Romney’s big weakness among conservatives is his establishment of a state health care system in Massachusetts, similar to what the feds have in mind for the nation.
This, then, is the perfect political maneuver for Pawlenty, Krinkie said. He’s taking on something that, for the moment at least, is unpopular, and he’s exploiting a weakness of a major opponent.
In all of this, Krinkie said, Pawlenty is not doing anything outside his own convictions.
“He has intellectual integrity,” Krinkie said.
But he also has considerable political flexibility.
For example, though he was a frequent critic of federal stimulus programs, he never turned down the huge amounts of money that prevented the state’s budget from being a bigger mess than it is. When asked about criticizing the federal programs he was accepting, Pawlenty typically would say that if the money didn’t come to Minnesota, it merely would go elsewhere.
He’s been flexible on other issues as well. For example, when he was chairman of the National Governors Association, he was almost as green as Al Gore. But when his term in that position ended, he did a 180-degree switch on some of his environmental positions.
For example, once a propopent of cap-and-trade legislation, by 2009 he was an opponent, calling such federal proposals “misguided and very burdensome on our economy.”
These latter-day Pawlenty environmental views seem to fit more comfortably with the views of the conservatives in his party.
Greiling sees major shifts to right
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, joined the Legislature in 1992, the same year that Pawlenty was a freshman representative from Eagan. That Tim Pawlenty was a moderate Republican, Greiling said. In one of the most dramatic votes ever in the Minnesota Legislature, Pawlenty supported a bill that expanded gay rights.
“People rose above partisan politics,” Greiling recalled. “People voted their conscience, not what was popular.”
Pawlenty has since said he “regrets” that vote, and as governor, he’s vetoed bills that would do such things as allow public entities to give gay employees with partners such benefits as family insurance. He’s an outspoken foe of gay marriage.
“He’s just turned further and further right,” Greiling said. “I’ve never believed he believes in many of the positions he’s taken.”
She calls Pawlenty a Dorian Gray, who is the Oscar Wilde character who trades his soul for everlasting beauty.
Laughing, she said Pawlenty not only seeks perpetual physical attractiveness — “he’s got a different hairstyle every time you turn around” — she believes his ambitions have caused him to sell his soul to the farthest right segments of his party.
“When he first was running for governor, I remember Mark Olson [a former state legislator] running around asking, ‘How’d he vote on this, how’d he vote on that?’ Mark was very conservative, and I know that then the conservatives really didn’t believe he was one of them … I don’t believe the Tim Pawlenty of then would have believed much of what the Tim Pawlenty today says.”
The perpetual question remains: What does Pawlenty really believe?
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.