This past week, Walter Shapiro’s profile of Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty appeared entitled,”The Tragedy of Tim Pawlenty: He Did Everything Right. And That Was the Problem” appeared
in The New Republic.
Shapiro spent the month of June following Pawlenty on the trail, interviewing the candidate and his friends and former colleagues. Put kindly, June was not a good month for Pawlenty. His performance at the first Republican debate in New Hampshire was panned by most, his fundraising numbers were anemic, and he was overtaken as the alternative to Mitt Romney by Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan.
The profile covers those developments, adding to it an analysis of his performance on the stump in the very different environments of Iowa and New Hampshire, his feelings about Bachmann’s rise, and the story of his blue-collar upbringing in South St. Paul.
Throughout the piece, Shapiro returns to the thesis that Pawlenty’s success in politics, the success that made him a potential running mate for John McCain in 2008 and a candidate this year, is rooted in his habit of constantly planning and micro-managing.
For me, the two biggest takeaways from this profile come from Pawlenty’s flirtation with environmentalism and his legacy as governor.
First, Shapiro quotes directly from Governor Pawlenty’s the first State of the State address of his second term. Pawlenty told legislators, “Minnesota can’t reverse global climate change by ourselves. But we can do our part and help lead the way. Our energy plan will significantly reduce the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere. I look forward to working with the Democrats and Republicans to pass and sign comprehensive historic renewable energy legislation this year.”
Indeed, it was impressive. His green agenda included cap-and-trade provisions and for Minnesota to get a quarter of its electricity from wind and solar power by 2025. He had embraced the fight against global warming so much that he was even considering a trip to the North Pole.
Then came the previously mentioned consideration for the VP-slot on the McCain campaign. The trip was shelved and the green agenda became less prominent. In interviews for the article, Pawlenty walked back his environmentalist streak. Does it make a difference if he is still an environmentalist and is only going silent to make it through the Republican primary? Or, following the GOP’s defeat across the country in 2006, did Pawlenty see environmentalism as a way to make him more attractive to independent and Democratic voters? Either way, it shows that while he is no Mitt Romney, his flip-flopping is problematic. Unlike Romney, who switched beliefs in an effort to win the Republican nomination, Pawlenty was willing to sell out his nascent green streak for a shot at being a candidate for vice-president.
Speaking of Romney, University of Minnesota political Larry Jacobs points out something worrisome about Tim Pawlenty’s record as governor. Says Jacob, “What is the signature issue of the Pawlenty administration? You would have to say its negative. It’s what he prevented. But what did Pawlenty create?”
The answer is nothing. Jacobs concludes, “And that’s disappointing, because the guy is bright. In terms of brain power, he’s unusual.” The negative creation that Jacobs refers to is his pledge not to raise taxes. His ability to hold the line on taxes, sort of, is his claim to fame.
Shouldn’t a presidential candidate have more of a vision for office than just holding the line on taxes? Past Republican presidents who have served as governors level have come to the White House with track records on other issues. And now as a nation, we face serious issues that whoever is sworn in as President on January 20, 2013 will face where not raising taxes isn’t an answer that fits. Aging infrastructure, public education, the cost of higher education, border safety (Hey, Minnesota borders Canada), and environmental issues. Where does he stand on these issues? Do they matter to him? Or he is some sort of tax-bot?
Maybe one bad month is the harbinger of what the rest of the Pawlenty campaign will be. Poorly funded, burdened by a candidate who struggles to connect with voters, and overshadowed by his better financed and more personable opponents. But, like John Kerry and John McCain before him, he could recover in time to finish competitively in the Iowa caucuses (Kerry, not McCain), and find a way to hold off Bachmann and make it a head-to-head fight against Romney. If that were to happen, people will start looking seriously at his record as governor. And from this profile, it looks pretty empty.