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Back to the future: Tim Pawlenty’s case for why he maybe, probably might want to be governor* again

*You know, if he runs.

On Monday, Tim Pawlenty released a statement announcing he had registered with the state campaign finance board for a possible run for governor.

*You know, if he runs.

Dressed in a casual fleece pullover and a pair of jeans, Tim Pawlenty is pacing across the stage inside the James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall at St. Thomas University’s Anderson Student Center like he’s delivering a TED Talk, one of those 18-minute online speeches about some big idea.

Pawlenty’s topic is technology and the economy — or the onset of what he calls the “fourth industrial revolution.” He covers everything from 3D printing and artificial intelligence to self-driving and flying cars, peppering the speech with a few jokes and one-liners: “I spoke the other day about AI and someone said: ‘Is that artificial insemination?’”

“We are at the doorstep, the dawn of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, and that industrial revolution is what’s coming next in terms of next generation, transformative, quantum, exponential capability in technology,” he tells a group of alumni, faculty and students in the speech, which he delivered at St. Thomas late last year.

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Pawlenty has been giving some version of this talk for more than a year now, delivering the address in front of local chambers of commerce, college students and pretty much whoever else is willing to listen. On the surface, it might seem like a strange topic of focus for Pawlenty, who served two terms as Minnesota’s governor and left the office in 2011 to run for president. But as Pawlenty turns his attention toward an increasingly likely run for his old job as governor, the talk has served another function: as a preview of his 2018 stump speech, one that looks far ahead into Minnesota’s future — and hardly at all at its, and his, past.

‘It’s not Star Trek’

On Monday, Pawlenty released a statement announcing he had registered with the state campaign finance board for a possible run for governor. “In recent weeks, Minnesotans have shared ideas and concerns with me about the new and difficult challenges they face in a rapidly changing economy,” the statement said. “I’m optimistic about Minnesota’s future and understand how to deliver more accountable government and better jobs.”

That future is rendered with vivid colors in Pawlenty’s “fourth industrial revolution” speech. Among other things, according to Pawlenty the nation’s healthcare debate — one of the biggest fights in Congress over the last decade — could soon be solved by a cellphone.

As he delivers the address, he holds up his phone to the crowd and then puts it up to his arm, his neck, his kidney. New technologies have catalogued all 10,000 known human medical conditions, he says, and applications are being created that can diagnose ailments as simply as putting a phone next to whatever part of the body hurts. That will dramatically change the affordability and quality of the healthcare industry, as well as access, he argues.

“It’s not Star Trek, it’s not some freaked-out scenario; these are all technologies, these are all capabilities that will be brought to market shortly,” Pawlenty says. “It’s going to change access, it’s going to change cost, and it’s going to change quality, probably for the better.”

The bulk of Pawlenty’s speech is pointing out examples — sometimes giddily — of areas where technology is rapidly evolving and addressing issues the country is facing. He mentions 3D printing, a developing technology that has recently been used to build an entire house at the fraction of the cost and time, something that could help the affordable housing crisis. He talks about new self-driving cars, and even shows a video of a beta-tested flying car that he says could revolutionize how people get around.

The fourth industrial revolution isn’t a new concept: Scholars and economists have been talking for years about the potential of the internet and digital age — the third industrial revolution — to transform into something bigger; to raise income levels and quality of life around the world, and soon.

Pawlenty said he’s been traveling the state to tell groups that Minnesota needs to be ready for this new era: that while there will be plenty of new jobs created, advances in technological automation won’t eliminate the need for vocational jobs, things like plumbers, electricians, painters, police officers and people in the hospitality industry. To meet those needs, the state’s schools should focus on training that can’t be outsourced, Pawlenty argues, while corporations and businesses need to engage in retraining programs to make their workers ready for the future.

“One of Minnesota’s biggest challenges is complacency,” Pawlenty says in the closing moments of his talk.“There’s a reflexive reaction in Minnesota to say we sort of just need to do what we’ve been doing and things will be fine. It’s not fully mindful enough of the need for change and the disruption that’s coming.”

Pawlenty looks ahead, others will look back

It’s not surprising Pawlenty, in a run up to a potential governor’s bid, would be looking for some “new material,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College.

Without a forward-looking message, the main conversation about Pawlenty would focus on his two terms in the governor’s office, which he held from 2003 until 2011. “He needs a new angle, one that no one else is talking about and that will make him look like an enterprising, forward-looking person, that distinguishes himself from everyone else in the gubernatorial field,” Schier said. “Otherwise the entire debate is going to be explaining his past actions, and when you are explaining, you’re losing.”

Campaign groups and his potential opponents on both sides will be doing enough talking about Pawlenty’s past, Schier said, particularly his two terms as governor, where his position to not raise income taxes put him in frequent clashes with a DFL lawmakers on everything from balanced budgets to new transportation funding.

“With a past like Tim Pawlenty’s, he’s the last person that Minnesotans need leading us into the future,” said Joe Davis, executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned campaign group. “He did enough damage to our families and our state the first time he was governor.”

In particular, groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota are attacking Pawlenty for his moves while governor to borrow from school district funds to help balance the budget, plus the $6.2 billion budget deficit he left behind when he exited office.

Pawlenty’s post-governor career will also face scrutiny. Since leaving office, his record includes a failed run for president and five years as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, an organization that lobbies in D.C. on behalf of the country’s largest and most powerful banks and financial institutions, and DFL-aligned groups are already attacking him as a Wall Street lobbyist.

Pawlenty officially left his job with the Financial Services Roundtable on Friday, and while he doesn’t go out of his way to talk about the job in his talk, he has also tried to point to its benefits. He mentions that it put him in contact with companies developing innovative technology, like GreenSky, which developed an app that can take a picture of someone’s driver’s license and send it to a bank for almost instant loan approvals.

The current leading Republican candidate for governor, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, said looking at future technologies and how to best position the state is an “important topic,” and one he’s also been talking about on the campaign trail, specifically in terms of implementing more technical training in schools.

“Making sure we’re ready for the economy of the future is crucial, but solving the current problems facing Minnesotans right now is what they deserve and what this election will be about,” Johnson said. “This election will be about bringing fundamental reform to government so it serves people instead of bullying them and so it stops taking more than it needs to from us. Putting on the green eyeshades and making government a little more efficient isn’t going to cut it.”

Right now, Pawlenty’s pitch about the future only dips slightly into politics, but that will change if he announces a bid for governor. He’s expected to position himself as the person best suited to bring Minnesota into the new future his speech envisions, one that could dramatically change the state’s economy, social services and educational system. If he does talk about his past two terms as governor, it will likely be to focus on things he sees as forward-looking, like renewable energy standards and working with Minnesota companies that were developing innovative technologies.

“We have the most innovative and creative people in the world in terms of arts and culture and technology,” he says. “Our economy is still the biggest in the world. We have so many blessings, we have so many advantages, we have so many assets if as a people, whether your’e R or D or independent, or something else or nothing, if we can just get some common consensus around a few basic things we’re going to have a great future.”