WASHINGTON – The political landscape of the nation’s capital has changed in ways that have eliminated the ability to compromise, former Minnesota governor and Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty told a group of private business leaders Wednesday.
Pawlenty has maintained a low profile since leaving politics last October to take a high-paying job running the Financial Roundtable, an advocacy group for the financial industry. He stepped briefly back into the public eye to offer his views about improving the federal government’s effectiveness, efficiency and accountability as the country seems to reel from one fiscal predicament to the next.
His prognosis to a conference organized by the Business Roundtable, a group representing some of the country’s most powerful CEOs, was grim.
“It’s a deeply divided country,” Pawlenty said. “Sadly, we have become a government by crisis. Things get done only when there is a moment of crisis, when people are staring into the abyss, and then, and only then, are they able to lurch forward, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes more significantly.”
This was not good news for executives trying to push politicians toward a broad-based, long-term solution for the nation’s deficit spending.
Matt Rose, chairman of BNSF Railway Co., who appeared with Pawlenty, said Washington’s political intransigence has kept unemployment unnecessarily high across the country and left companies hesitant to invest in people or capital equipment.
Rose held up the fast rebuilding of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis as an example of how well government can work. He predicted a “revolt” by voters and the emergence of a new kind of leader if the culture in D.C. doesn’t change.
But Pawlenty said he doesn’t see Washington returning soon to an era where politicians are as pragmatic as they are ideological.
“Almost all moderates have been systematically eliminated from elective office,” he said.
In a country where legislative districts have been drawn to favor one party or another, just 35 out of 435 House districts remain competitive, Pawlenty said. “One of the primary considerations you have to have in the other 400 districts is not whether you’re going to get re-elected in the general election, but whether someone from your own party is going to further outflank you to the right or to the left.”
While he didn’t mention President Obama by name, Pawlenty suggested that a strong executive speaking with a “single voice” from a “bully pulpit” might have to fill the void left by a House and Senate that will not work together and a White House and Congress that don’t trust one another.
The call for pragmatism signals Pawlenty’s transformation from a sharp-tongued partisan politician to leader of a nonpartisan advocacy group that can’t afford to anger either party.
As a presidential candidate, Pawlenty once told Wall Street financiers who needed federal bailouts to survive the subprime lending scandal to “get your snout out of the trough.” Today, he tries to repair the image of the financial industry.
“It’s an industry that has obviously and understandably gone through a tough three to five years. There were a lot of bad decisions that were made,” Pawlenty said in an interview after he spoke.
Despite his partisan past, he said he has been welcomed on his occasional visits to Capitol Hill. Pawlenty has not registered as a lobbyist, relying instead on members of his staff to try to present information and change minds.
He sees his new job as “a chance to build in a more positive direction” for banks and other financial institutions. “But as I told our members,” he added, “you don’t just get trust. You earn it.”