If the rest of the country knew what we know about Tim Pawlenty, would he still be the next big thing?
One night last Christmas during our annual family light-watching tour, I drove past Gov. Tim Pawlenty's suburban home. An older brother who lives in the area pointed it out to us, but it wasn't hard to find. To accommodate his security detail, the governor had what can only be described as an ice-fishing house parked in his driveway.
Pawlenty wasn't the first state executive to stiff-arm the Governor's Residence in St. Paul, a burdensome address that could easily be mistaken for that other famous dump, Stately Wayne Manor. And officially, he does in live in St. Paul part of the time. Still, to a proud Minnesotan, something about the grim sight of that shanty-obstructed Pawlenty residence in the suburbs felt like a snub. What exactly was wrong, I wanted to ask, with the gorgeous Tudor we offered you on Summit Avenue?
Who knows -- the governor may have some reasonable explanation for stiff-arming the people's house. But for those of us who have never quite understood the Pawlenty allure, and who now stand slack-jawed at the chorus of chatter touting his prospects in a presidential run, it's hard not to view his ambivalence about the people's house as emblematic of the defining Pawlenty characteristic. A relish, with drama-queen like determination, in the saying of "no."
His tenure as sheriff of state government in Minnesota has been characterized by veto upon veto and stare-downs with three different legislatures, the latest having devolved into the ultimate power grab of unallotment. His supporters have viewed these Mexican standoffs as profiles in courage, but to others they seem better characterized as a string of bad marriages sporting the same ex-husband, a guy perennially mad about the electric bill.
I say all of this with no special joy in dumping on the governor, a sad exercise that lost its novelty long ago. It's just that it's hard not to exaggerate the sense of amazement one can feel -- with the carcass of yet another broken legislative session not yet receded in the rear-view mirror -- watching the governor's every move paired with the giddy invocation of "a likely Pawlenty presidential run."
If Pawlenty runs for higher office, the Minnesota political corps has a front-row seat at the Iowa caucuses -- we all get that. But seriously, how many of us want to see this same dance played out on a national stage? Let's just get a show of hands. Does our breathless anticipation for the next Pawlenty move have anything to do with our timeless Midwestern insecurity complex? There is something so very self-loathing about it all. We can't wait to offer him an even better mansion to half-inhabit.
Compounding the acerbic Pawlenty method has been his fondness for inapplicably homey rhetoric. Much hay has been made over Pawlenty's call to "Sam's Club Republicans." Now there's a phrase that has always puzzled me. Is it really a compliment to tell your followers that their determination to buy paper towels in bulk is their defining characteristic? On other occasions, Pawlenty has invoked the image of a "kitchen table" to defend his budgetary method. Again, some of us are not really getting the connection there, either.
Pawlenty has typically presented Minnesotans with a budget that requires supercomputer-worthy levels of money shifting, dueling applications of the effects of inflation and other sleights of hand. Last session, he tried to talk us into paying something like $800 million over 20 years to borrow $1 billion for one year. His unallotment handiwork featured still more Pawlenty pencil magic. If the Pawlenty budget resembles a kitchen table, it's the barren granite countertop of a schemer studying no-money-down real estate course work sold on infomercials.
Recently we were reminded that Pawlenty had bagged a 53 percent approval rating. We also recently learned, before his decision not to go for a three-peat, that 57 percent of Minnesotans thought the governor should not run for a third term. Clearly, most Minnesotans are too busy eating Cheez Whiz straight from the can to really think about what they are saying when the pollsters call.
Though the buzz may be palpable, when it comes to the beef -- why exactly anyone should support a Pawlenty race in 2012 -- all we have heard is that Pawlenty is a "fresh face" on the national stage. So would be Zac Efron. Based upon what our governor has shown us, here's a better list of factors to assess his justification in running for president:
He doesn't seem to like the trappings of higher office. He's not especially skilled at working with his opposition. He's not an especially thoughtful steward of public finances. He's not an especially compelling communicator. Oh, and he's really fond of saying no.
Clearly, this is a man the national party will want to keep its eyes on. But it might want to do something about that shed.
Paul Scott is a writer in Rochester, Minn.
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