Thursday, June 16, 2011

POTUS Profiles: Tim Pawlenty

Originally published in Red Racing Horses.


The Candidate

Wikipedia provides the best summation of the necessary details:
Timothy James "Tim" Pawlenty (born November 27, 1960) is an American politician who served as the 39th Governor of Minnesota (2003-2011). He is a Republican candidate for President of the United States in the 2012 election. He previously served in the Minnesota House of Representatives (1993-2003) where he served two terms as majority leader.
Pawlenty was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and raised in nearby South St. Paul. He graduated from University of Minnesota with a B.A. in political science and earned a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School. His early career included working as a labor law attorney and the vice president of a software company. After settling in the city of Eagan with his wife, Pawlenty was appointed to the city's Planning Commission and was elected to the Eagan City Council at the age of 28. He won a seat as a state representative in 1992, representing district 38B in suburban Dakota County. He was re-elected four times, and voted majority leader by House Republicans in 1998.

Pawlenty's narrative is pretty clear. Like every other Republican candidate, he is not a big fan of the President. This comes with the standard declaration to repeal Obamacare, balance the budget and cut spending. Unlike other opponents, Pawlenty has begun to get specific on policy- he recently released his own ambitious economic plan which sets 5% growth targets, cuts or abolishes a variety of taxes, and broadens the tax base. He has called for phasing out ethanol subsidies, gradually raising the Social Security retirement age in place of defense spending, and has pulled no punches in attacking President Obama as 'timid' on Libya. Pawlenty also plans to release his own Medicare plan as an alternative to the Ryan budget's entitlement cuts.

It is not surprising that TPaw is already releasing his own proposed policies on certain issues, or even that he has an issues page on his website; Pawlenty was one of the first candidates to actively explore a presidential campaign, so he has a bit of a headstart on his competition in this department.
Pawlenty also has his own record as Governor. He often trumps the health care plan his own state passed under his tenure as an alternative to Romneycare, although the plan has met with its own criticism. He is quick to tout his own state's balanced budgets and lack of tax increases, for which he received an 'A' from the CATO Institute in 2010. However, this too leaves certain vulnerabilities, as critics maintain that his budgets exploded the deficit of the state.

Not all of his accomplishments come with caveats. As Governor Pawlenty appproved tougher abortion standards, allowed local school boards to teach intelligent design, and successfully fought organized labor to cut pension benefits for mass transit workers.

Conservatives sometimes point to his past flirtation with cap and trade as evidence of ideological deviation. Nevertheless, in general Pawlenty has a solid record as a Republican executive in a decidedly purple to blue state.


Pawlenty has been quick to adapt his narrative to the changing conditions of the primary field. When critics claimed he lacked charisma, TPaw made a type of reboot around CPAC via a speech laced with dramatic declarations ("Might makes right!") and told with a more gravelly and less conciliatory tone than the past.

At the same time, the campaign began to develop new ads (you can see two here and here) filled with intensity- comedian Stephen Colbert has aptly compared them to movie trailers- to bolster excitement for his candidacy.

More recently the campaign has settled on a theme of "truth," which he explained in an op-ed in USA Today.
I'm going to try something a little unusual in politics. I'm just going to tell the truth. Washington is broken, our country is going broke, and our long-term financial outlook will make the pain of the recent recession pale in comparison.
It's long past time for America's president — and anyone who wants to be president — to be straight with the American people.

So here it is: Government money isn't "free." Either you and I pay for it in taxes, or our children pay for it in debt. The reforms we need are not in the billions, but in the trillions of dollars. And the cuts we must make cannot just be in other people's favorite programs.
That's why later this week I'm going to New York City to tell Wall Street that if I'm elected, the era of bailouts and handouts for big banks is over. I'm going to Florida to tell both young people and seniors that our entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path and have to be changed. And, today, I'm in Iowa to speak truthfully about farm subsidies.
It is in this context that his opposition to ethanol subsidies, seen as politically unpopular in the critical state of Iowa, is politically wise. Pawlenty gets the chance to seem bold and willing to stand up against conventional wisdom and perhaps challenge the political 'establishment' (dare I say be a maverick?). That is not to say he is reckless- the former Governor's measured response to the Ryan plan betrays a realistic approach to electioneering: give enough substance to stick out from other contenders but not too much to unduly anger potential voters.

There are always certain constants in Pawlenty's message. Every speech mentions he grew up in a meatpacking town and had a blue collar upbringing. He focuses a lot on his Midwestern background, clearly trying to prove his character to an electorate to which he remains largely unknown.
The other staple of his speeches is Obama. Most of the Republican candidates have focused their criticism on the incumbent Democratic President on health care, fiscal issues, and foreign policy; TPaw is no exception.


Pawlenty has not had Romney levels of fundraising, but he has been effective in this department. In May, campaign spokesman Alex Conant told MPR, "We're not going to raise as much money as other people who are running, but we will raise enough to be competitive." For example, during May the campaign raised over $1.5 million in three fundraisers. While Pawlenty has spent a significant amount of time stumping in Iowa lately, he has also maintained a vigorous fundraising schedule. As Pawlenty gains the support of more prominent (and wealthy) figures in the party, expect his fundraising to pick up. He has already gathered some big names to provide monetary support to his bid, including Texas homebuilder and Republican financier Bob Perry. When FEC reports are released in late July, TPaw should have a fairly strong showing.


The one glaring weakness of the candidate is debating. Pundits have latched on to his failure to defend his coining of "Obamneycare," a term he had two days before used to describe Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts, during the last presidential debate in New Hampshire. After the event Pawlenty told media that he wanted to stay focused on the President.

The moment was embarassing insofar that it was a strikingly sudden and awkward strategy shift, taking place on national television, for a campaign still working to build its name recognition. However, a closer look reveals something deeper about the candidate.

When it came time for Pawlenty, the supposed anti-Romney, to attack the frontrunner, he balked. Unlike Michele Bachmann, the former Governor of Minnesota is not known as a bombthrower. However, he faces a primary electorate which is still unsettled from the rise of the Tea Party, agitated by the passage of health care reform and continuing economic trouble, and confident in its ideological purity in the wake of the Republican landslide of 2010.

One on one, Pawlenty is an affable, calm and eminently reasonable politician who has a certain charm about him- some would call it "Minnesota Nice". Unfortunately for TPaw, his mild Midwestern manners leave some potential voters unsatsified. He has encountered a political necessity- balancing his natural personality with the raw emotion of the Republican base- which creates a tendency for Pawlenty to guard his statements.

It isn't that he is headed for a gaffe; Obamneycare would hardly qualify. Instead, Pawlenty is missing opportunities to create his own unique brand with a national audience. Pundits talked up the former Minnesota Governor as the only legitimate candidate onstage during the first debate; however, he missed the opportunity to land a strong impression on voters and ceded victory in that forum to Herman Cain.

This may prove dangerous for Pawlenty down the line. He is relatively unknown right now, but his name recognition is rapidly improving. Now is the time to build the right narrative for the candidate while voters are unsure about their opinion of him. The campaign knows this; they aren't speaking the 'truth' for nothing. Now TPaw needs to bring this hard-hitting honesty to the arena if he wants it to register at the polls.


Every cycle there are plenty of Governors and Senators who try to take the plunge into a presidential race and fail to gain national traction or attention (sorry Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer). These candidates could probably take a cue from Pawlenty.

The former Minnesota Governor started with a relatively small base of support, mainly in the Republican political establishment of his home state. However, as a dogged campaigner Pawlenty has slowly changed the perception of himself from obscure Governor to legitimate contender.
One personal story from college can help illuminate how this could happen. Months before CPAC, the Minnesota College Republicans did not plan to attend the annual conservative event of the year in DC; they had no money and no means to reach the conference. Suddenly, Pawlenty's PAC contacted the leadership and offered to subsidize a charter bus for the group. A significant discount later, and I and about seventy other Minnesota CRs were headed to DC.

The sponsorship served a dual purpose. On the one hand,  Pawlenty was able to bring actual supporters to CPAC and tout them during his speech (our delegation was the largest College Republican group in attendance). Less tangible was the long-term effect. By inviting these students to receptions in DC, shaking each one's hand and helping them attend the conference, Pawlenty earned the loyalty of numerous CRs who were originally skeptical of his campaign. My own survey of attendees initially found few supporters on the bus before we left, but on the return trip the crowd was enthusiastic for their homestate Governor. Today at least one Minnesota CR works as one of his field staffers, a good number work with his Students for TPaw organization, and others attend fundraisers or phonebank.

It is this willingness to do little things to build the campaign that has given Pawlenty the opportunity to contend this race. In 2009 and 2010 he attended all types of party gatherings with his Freedom First PAC in seemingly irrelevant states to build some name recognition and potential donations in the future.

Now, Pawlenty boasts a growing number of operatives and endorsements for his campaign. He has already built an effective organization in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he recently announced the endorsement of Rep. Joe Wilson in South Carolina. His campaign is managed by Nick Ayers, the former Executive Director of the RGA with Haley Barbour, and he picked up the endorsement of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who originally signed on as co-chair to Gingrich's presidential campaign. For an obscure Midwestern Governor, Pawlenty maintains a stunning campaign operation.


The campaign is clearly waiting for a pileup. As more and more candidates opt out of the field (who can guess when Palin declines a run?) or lesser contenders withdraw, Pawlenty's institutional advantages should become even more important. He will be ready for the moment when he becomes the last man standing against Mitt Romney and unite the factions of the party against the softly supported frontrunner.

There are certain flaws with this strategy. TPaw has to be sweating about a potential Rick Perry and Rudy Giuliani campaign, both well-connected candidates who have openings to excite the base if they jump in with serious bids. It also relies upon Pawlenty being able to rise to the occasion when he ascends to the top of the pack; at a certain point Pawlenty will have to effectively contrast himself with Romney, a fellow blue state Governor.

Given his need to appeal to every faction of the party, Pawlenty cannot afford to pick and choose which states to contest. He is following the traditional path- contest Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and then enter Super Tuesday. He already has organized staffers on the ground in these states and is pulling in cash to take advantage of them. Pawlenty is surely using these resources to the fullest; nevertheless, the cycle is still early for these advantages to be used to their greatest advantage. As the field whittles down, Pawlenty's operation stands ready to act.


However, he does have two noteworthy thorns in his side. The first are libertarians. Pawlenty recently gave a speech at CATO, presumably due to the group's positive rating of his gubernatorial tenure. However, when it came time for questions he reportedly drew ire from the organization's stalwarts on marijuana legalization and defense spending. At the same time, Paul supporters have a distaste for the Governor after his hawkish speech at CPAC, which happened to come right before Ron Paul's own speech at th event. Considering Paul has essentially consolidated this constituency of the party in this run, libertarians are not exactly an accessible group for any other candidate to court at the moment.

More problematic is the longrunning feud between Michele Bachmann and Pawlenty. A recent Politico article described it as a "grudge match", among other colorful phrases. Bachmann and Pawlenty have different leadership styles and constituencies, but their common background has put the two on a collision course since their days in the state legislature. Bachmann endorsed another candidate for the Republican nod for Governor in 2002, and has locked horns with Pawlenty on a variety of public policy issues ranging from cigarette taxes to education. Publicly neither camp acknowledges the rivalry; however, anybody vaguely interested in Republican politics in Minnesota can cut the tension in the air with a knife. Both will be going after the same voters in Iowa, knowing their campaigns depend on a strong showing in the Hawkeye State to advance to the next level, so do not expect the pressure to subside soon.


Pawlenty's strongest weakness right now are probably his poll numbers; he remains in single digits as he introduces himself to voters. Gallup pegged the candidate at 3%, 6%, and 6% during three different polls of a national GOP primary from April to June respectively. Fox News found TPaw steady at 4%, 3% and 5%. CNN flipped these results with 3%, 5% and 3%. Finally, PPP gives Pawlenty his best results with 4%, 8% and 13%.

His numbers generally show a similar creep upward in Iowa and New Hampshire. In general the low showing is the result of low name recognition. Then again, Herman Cain with similar low name recognition has boasted higher poll numbers throughout the past month than Pawlenty. It is that kind of excitement, an enthused group of supporters, that Pawlenty will have to build to break out from the rest of the pack.

Further Reading

I am indebted to two previous profiles of Pawlenty: one by Michael Crowley at Time and another by Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online. Both are worth reading.

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