By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Is Tim Pawlenty running for president in 2008?
Not yet, but he's very taken with the idea. The vast majority of any political climber's career is spent setting the table and waiting around for the chance to proclaim a banquet. That's Pawlenty's tack at the moment. A February ABC News feature about the presidential buzz surrounding the governor noted that "two people familiar with his political planning say Pawlenty wants to expand his political profile with the hopes of landing on a short list for president--or potentially for vice president or Senate candidate." The clearest sign of Pawlenty's aspirations was the round of meet-and-greets and speaking engagements he undertook in the months following last fall's election. As conservative lobbyists and power brokers gathered to consider what would come after Bush, Pawlenty made himself available to speak to antitax ideologue Grover Norquist's crew and likewise to the Club for Growth. At the Bush inauguration in January, he pressed flesh with right-wing pundits from the DC press corps.
There's likely to be a crowded Republican field in 2008. How do Pawlenty's chances of becoming a serious contender for the nomination look from here?
Not very good. He excites the imagination of right-wing gatekeepers like Paul Weyrich, who called Pawlenty one of the top three or four Republican contenders for '08, and Grover Norquist, who placed him in the top dozen. But he has no national profile. As political consultant Bill Hillsman puts it, "If you really look at the landscape, it seems sort of ridiculous to be thinking this. I think the notion of him running in '08 is--it's not ludicrous, but it's heading toward ludicrous as opposed to heading toward reality. But at the same time, he's done a very good job of managing his image nationally among the circles that count. It's more of an insider's game, involving DC people."
But there are many who believe Pawlenty's more pressing aim is to make himself, at minimum, an attractive choice for the number two spot on a Republican ticket, which might or might not entail mounting a presidential campaign of his own. This scenario makes more sense to Hillsman: "He could fit very well, depending who's topping the ticket. And there's precedent for that--Dan Quayle. I don't mean to be insulting to Pawlenty, but he fits the look, the same mode: the young go-getter. And I think that could happen."
Ironically or not, angling for a VP slot would be more in keeping with the arc of Pawlenty's political career, in which he has usually been cast as the number two guy. As a member of the Minnesota House, he rose as high as majority leader, the number two position in Republican House leadership. After running unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1998, he geared up for another try in 2001, only to be dissuaded by the conservative backing already amassed behind Brian Sullivan. Pawlenty then veered toward a run for Paul Wellstone's Senate seat, but all he got for his trouble was a call from Karl Rove asking him to stay out of that race in favor of Norm Coleman. Pawlenty balked, and next he received a rather more stern call from Dick Cheney. Pawlenty reluctantly stood down, and only then did he turn his efforts back to the governor's race, eventually beating out Sullivan for the nomination.
What's the key to his being a viable presidential candidate or VP pick?
It all revolves around holding the line on his "no new taxes" pledge--which does not really mean no new taxes; it means no reinstatement of any progressivity to the state's tax base. All the various "fees" that have been raised or added or proposed under Pawlenty, including his own call for a "health impact fee" on cigarettes, are tax increases by any sane reckoning. But they're regressive. They don't hit the political donor class. So GOP power brokers don't mind these taxes as long as they don't set the voters to burning down things or electing Democrats. The party's leadership is looking ahead and seeing potentially enormous pressure, post-Bush, to reinstate some of the taxes on the super-rich that this White House abolished. And one of the main jobs of Republican stage managers looking ahead to 2008 is to cultivate a pool of candidates who will fight to the death to keep that from happening. That's the list Pawlenty means to be on, and it explains why he made a point of dropping the nice-guy demeanor long enough to call a Senate DFL plan to raise taxes on the state's 42,000 richest citizens "profoundly stupid."
Naturally he's got to get reelected in 2006 for any of this to matter. He seems reasonably well poised to do that, with a stable approval rating in the mid-50s over the past several months. But events beyond Pawlenty's control--fiscal gridlock over taxes at the Legislature, or a more general economic downturn--could turn those ratings upside down between now and next November. One could almost imagine a Mike Hatch TV spot along these lines: "I'm running for governor of Minnesota. He's running for president on the backs of working Minnesotans." Then again, never underestimate the discretion and politesse of Democrats when it comes to exploiting the failings of Republicans.