Peripatetic Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in Virginia on Wednesday -- one of eight states on his travel plate this month -- when he was hustled out of a news conference he was attending with Bob McDonnell, a Republican candidate for Virginia governor, after things got unruly and reporters started behaving like Republicans at a presidential address.
The ruckus had nothing to do with Pawlenty, who is sporting a new Huckabee haircut these days, peddling a Palinesque message with 50 percent less bombast and springing up and down in the back of every gathering of Republican presidential candidates like the Eddie Murphy-voiced donkey in "Shrek": Pick me! Pick me!
The problem was McDonnell's troglodytic master's thesis, written 20 years ago, in which he railed against working women, contraception and "fornicators." According to reports, aides hurriedly escorted Pawlenty from the room when reporters mobbed McDonnell. I'm guessing that early exit is a precursor of how things will turn out when the 2012 presidential season hits full steam. But he was lucky: He escaped without having to field awkward questions about his presidential aspirations or why he was standing next to a guy who said women in the workplace are "detrimental" or why he wasn't tending to business back in his home state.
You know: Old What's Its Name.
It's called Minnesota, and although Pawlenty can find 49 other states, he's having trouble feeling his way around his home state. For good reason: Minnesota's problems could trip up his ambitions. As Pawlenty travels the Republican rubber chicken circuit, Minnesota is heading into uncharted waters.
And its governor is AWOL.
Pawlenty's refusal to participate in a legislative summit designed to stave off looming fiscal disaster was nothing less than nonfeasance. Instead of doing his job at the Capitol last week, Pawlenty attended a shmoozefest in Eden Prairie, surrounded by business leaders and loyalists (not to mention his adoring staff). In shirking his duty, he broke faith with voters and broke bonds with the legacy of his party.
The Capitol event drew dozens of former state government leaders, including a bevy of mainstream Minnesota Republicans such as former governors Al Quie and Arne Carlson, who warned the state is steering toward an iceberg with no captain at the helm. He was correct: The "captain" has gotten his own boat and is rowing toward the horizon.
Every man for himself.
Both major parties -- and the governor -- share responsibility for the deep partisan divide that is hampering solutions to Minnesota's problems. They also share a responsibility to put the state on sound footing.
Tim Pawlenty is too busy primping for the GOP presidential beauty contest and bizarrely making himself into a financial Pollyanna. Predictions put the next deficit at as high as three or four times the 2009 deficit -- and without billions in federal stimulus funds to help close the gap. But Pollyanna's take on the coming crisis: "It's a very manageable number," he told the lovefest in Eden Prairie.
Waiter, I'd like whatever he's having.
For a guy who acted as if the sky was falling when the president asked to speak to schoolchildren, Pawlenty sure seems laid back about his own obligations. He has dived so deep into the right-wing tide pool that by Thursday, he had joined Sarah Palin and a few other GOP confederates in threatening to invoke the 10th Amendment -- in effect having Minnesota secede from the union on health care reform with little regard for the effect on Minnesota's 450,000 uninsured citizens.
Has any governor in the recent past been so nakedly devoted to his national ambitions, and so lackadaisical about his responsibilities? David Jennings, a former Republican House Speaker in the state Legislature, says one comes to mind: Bill Clinton.
Jennings, now superintendent of Chaska schools, attended the budget summit and was disappointed to find the governor had blown it off. Pawlenty, he says, is holding his breath, trying to get to the end of his term before the financial crisis scorches his national reputation.
"How do you not come to a meeting to solve this," Jennings asks. "For a governor to take the position that 'I don't have to talk to the Legislature, I can dismiss them,' is inappropriate. The Legislature is annoying, and I'm sure he's tired of it, but that's part of his job description. We have a serious structural problem that will change everything about Minnesota. So for him to act as if everything will be fine when, in fact, he won't be here to deal with the problems, is irresponsible."
There you are: Tim Pawlenty ducking his home-state duties while trying to act like a leader on a national stage, one more ambitious pol with pretensions of greatness.
Maybe he's ready for Washington after all.
Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.