It's way too early to write Tim Pawlenty's political obituary. But his abrupt exit from the 2012 presidential race on Sunday makes him a ripe subject for another punditry staple -- the What-If Game.
Today's game questions: What if Minnesota's former governor hadn't spent the last five years cozying up to the increasingly conservative national Republican Party? What would have happened if instead he had stayed true to the direction he set earlier in his career?
For example, there was the first-term state legislator who voted in 1993 in favor of legally shielding gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination. He backpedaled nine years later, when he ran for governor.
There was the gubernatorial candidate in 2002 who initially refused to sign a "no-new-taxes" pledge. He did an about-face a few days before the state GOP endorsing convention, where his chief rival was pledge-signing Brian Sullivan. Pawlenty won the endorsement and Minnesota got stuck with the pledge.
I remember House Majority Leader Pawlenty in about 2001 voicing concern about the middling rank of his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and discussing ideas for improving its standing. I don't recall a similar emphasis from Gov. Pawlenty.
But I do remember a governor who told me in 2003 that he regretted the large cuts in local government aid that were part of that year's austerity budget. He wanted to reverse them as soon as the budget was stable again, he said. When it was, he didn't.
The first-term governor was keen on combatting climate-changing carbon emissions with a market-based cap-and-trade plan. He apologized for that good idea earlier this year.
In that first term, Pawlenty was also a critic of federal refusal to allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. He had no qualms about taking advantage of the price break that Canadian "socialized medicine" delivered for its citizens.
His health care apostasy in Tea Party eyes went further after his narrow reelection in 2006, when he flirted with using MinnesotaCare to extend health insurance coverage to all children. The flirtation was brief.
In 2007, he suggested creation of a state-run health insurance purchasing exchange -- the same idea that he ordered his administration to spurn in 2010 when it was part of the new federal health reform law.
By 2010, Pawlenty's health policy agenda had been reduced to one principle: Oppose Obamacare. It could have been much more.
In 2005, Pawlenty breached his "no new taxes" pledge with a "health impact fee" on cigarettes. Nomenclature aside, it was sound policy, helping to preserve health care support for the poor, end a state government shutdown and deter smoking.
It was also the last time Pawlenty would be so fiscally responsible. No matter how deep the red ink got in his second term or how sketchy the gimmicks for dodging the problem, he wouldn't make a similar move.
When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, he briefly allowed that he might support a gas tax increase, lest parsimony lead to more catastrophic infrastructure failures. He held to that position for most of a week.
What would have been his fate, had Tim Pawlenty stayed true to his first ideas on human rights, health care, climate change, and state management? To be sure, those ideas would make him an outlier in today's GOP.
If he had tried a presidential bid, his drubbing in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday likely would have been worse. He might well have parked his presidential ambitions at the starting line this year.
But he also might be the successful third-term governor of Minnesota, on his way to surpassing Rudy Perpich as the state's longest-serving chief executive.
And he might have found himself a figure of national interest this summer, as Americans cast about for compromisers and see no one in the GOP presidential lineup who fills that bill.
Pawlenty might have been in a position to articulate an alternative vision for the Republican Party, one that puts government more plainly on the side of working people -- folks like the Pawlentys of South St. Paul.
From that possibility arises a new question: What if Pawlenty were to choose another policy course for his next move, one that departs from Tea Party orthodoxy and lets the truck driver's son be heard again?
Today, Pawlenty might be playing that What-If Game himself.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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