Dec. 12, 2007: Is Pawlenty better at providing big ideas than results?

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2007 - 10:06 AM

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, everyone agrees, is a man of many ideas. Some say there are too many ideas and not enough to show for them.

From his no-new-taxes pledge to his potential Arctic trek to highlight global warming, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has long been a master of the grand political gesture.

His knack for reaping rewards from bold strokes while seldom paying a price for taking risks has helped lift Pawlenty onto a short list of rising Republican stars.

But behind the scenes there is grumbling from DFLers and even some in his own party that Pawlenty is more adroit at the splashy idea than the steady follow-through. Concerns have flared anew with Pawlenty's newly energized campaign against climate change -- including his recent teamup with explorer Will Steger -- and the release of the state's budget forecast, which suggests that additional money for big initiatives will be scarce in 2008.

When Pawlenty helped engineer an accord this fall to reduce the Midwest's future greenhouse gas emissions, state Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, called it "feel-good politics" that "did nothing for the environment."

Others point to examples where Pawlenty's ambitions have been larger than his ability to deliver: a "Cover All Kids" proposal to extend health care that withered as the price tag grew, a fleeting flexibility on a gas-tax increase after the Interstate 35W bridge fell, a high-profile crusade against costly prescription drugs that yielded little more than a website.

"Like a lot of crafty politicians who lack money and votes and face a hostile Legislature, he goes to the symbolically popular," said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. "And if he's thinking about the national stage, he needs to make himself visible in a positive way that will get good press attention."

Former Gov. Arne Carlson said that he has seen repeated pitches from Pawlenty for big change at some point in the future, but little so far that requires immediate sacrifice or compromise.

"It reminds me of that one saint who prayed, 'Oh Lord, make me pure -- but not yet,' " said Carlson, a Republican. "Environmental changes that you want to make in 2020 don't count as much as doing something in the here and now."

Brian McClung, Pawlenty's communications director, said that while Pawlenty "certainly hasn't gotten everything he wanted ... this governor has been remarkably successful in achieving the vast majority of initiatives he's proposed."

As part of the response to criticisms voiced during preparation of this article, Pawlenty's office drew up an 83-point checklist of accomplishments, along with a 23-page "Legacy of Reform" that McClung said staffers have been compiling for some time. Listed as achievements: Closing a $4.5-billion 2003-04 budget deficit without tax increases and establishing a "State Achievement Ribbon."

McClung said that gains in areas such as renewable energy and transit required persistence and came only at considerable political risk.

DFLers say that both issues demonstrate Pawlenty's skill at "suddenly leading the parade," as Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, puts it.

Anderson, a longtime environmental advocate, said Pawlenty worked behind the scenes for years to water down renewable-energy standards and became a cheerleader only when he saw that the 2006 election gave House DFLers the upper hand on the issue.

"She's entitled to her opinion," McClung said. "The fact is, the governor proposed [renewable energy standards] in 2006 and in 2007."

Instant prominence

Those around him have grown accustomed to Pawlenty's policy bursts. In the space of several days in mid-November, for example, he announced a multi-point plan to aid veterans, to assist homeowners facing foreclosure, and he helped engineer a Midwestern greenhouse-gas accord.

Longtime allies such as former chief of staff Charlie Weaver defend Pawlenty's idea-a-minute style.

Weaver, who now leads the Minnesota Business Partnership, points to Pawlenty's recent 35-point plan to help veterans. "Let's say five of those pass," he said. "Do you complain because he didn't get the other 30 through?"

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, a leading figure on health care, acknowledges some progress on Pawlenty's pay-for-performance health-care reform initiatives.

"But there are still times when he is not paying enough attention to follow-through and details," she added. "It's just a headline for today and he's hoping nobody remembers it next month or next year."

Pawlenty's attention can bring instant prominence to an issue but can vanish just as quickly.

In 2005, Pawlenty proposed extracting casino revenues from the state's most successful Indian tribes as a way of balancing the state's spreadsheet. The idea fizzled but Pawlenty still scored points in some quarters for taking on wealthy tribes.

A similarly brief attempt to reinstate the death penalty in the wake of college student Dru Sjodin's murder was cheered by law-and-order advocates even though Pawlenty dropped the idea in the face of opposition.

At war with himself?

Another view of Pawlenty is that he is not so much a headline-grabber as an instinctive innovator trapped in his own small-government, low-tax ideology.

"What we're seeing here is Tim Pawlenty at war with himself," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. "He's taken strong, bold positions that the political marketplace has a hard time digesting. Then he retreats."

"It's happened enough that I'm now distrustful of anything he says he wants to do," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville. On education, she said, "he wants to have bold strokes. Last year he wanted high school reform. Great. We heard a lot about that. It seemed very genuine. Then suddenly, it was gone. The fact that he wants to do new things but doesn't have the money really brings him up short."

Transportation advocates swooned last summer when Pawlenty briefly appeared to reverse course and support a gas-tax increase in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse.

But conservatives pushed back and soon a gas tax was off the table again.

An early political mentor of Pawlenty's, former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, said Pawlenty's special contribution is a talent for defining policy problems.

"While I may have wished he did more with one or two issues ... he's just never going to be that kind of guy," Durenberger said. "He doesn't care about being recognized as a single-issue governor.

Instead, Durenberger said, Pawlenty has an uncanny ability to "identify the serious problems as a nation and state that we have to deal with and call attention to them."

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says Pawlenty's accomplishments for conservative principles have been substantial.

Pawlenty, he said, "stuck to his guns" on taxes, abolished the Profiles of Learning that conservatives despised, and has been a forceful spokesman on abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

Deeds vs. words

Uncertainty about Pawlenty's staying power has fueled doubts on both sides in response to his new drumbeat on climate change.

While Jungbauer, the GOP state senator, detects "feel-good politics," environmentalists are uneasy too, welcoming his interest but wondering whether Pawlenty will push for hard decisions on lifestyle changes that could make a real difference but prove inconvenient.

"We need strong speeches and good leadership, but ultimately we need the policies that will require emissions reductions," said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, the region's leading clean-energy group and a member of Pawlenty's advisory cabinet on climate change.

"We're waiting to see how well his deeds match his words," Hamilton said.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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