The Smiling Face of Pain

The "new" Tim Pawlenty looks a lot like the old one

At the godforsaken hour of 2:53 in the morning, Tim Pawlenty moved through the shriveling victory balloons and wadded cocktail napkins inside the Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton Bloomington hotel and ascended the stage for his first speech as the re-elected governor of Minnesota. For eight solid hours at this GOP election night bash, the phalanx of television screens in and around the ballroom had shown the political carcasses of Republicans piling up like cordwood from coast to coast. Among the races thought to be competitive in Minnesota, Pawlenty was one of the precious few Republican survivors. The shell-shocked die-hards left in the audience may not have known whether to cheer or cry, but Tim Pawlenty remained the once and future Boy Wonder.

In securing his razor-thin margin of victory, Pawlenty had once again leaned on his common-man folksiness and affability, subtly reinforcing the autobiographical flourishes of his first campaign, when he introduced himself as the son of a milk truck driver from South St. Paul, a boyish go-getter who had put himself through college and could still be enticed into a game of pickup hockey. But this time out, he had a record to defend. By "solving" a $4.5 billion budget deficit without raising taxes, Pawlenty had thrown tens of thousands of people off state-supported health care, plunged hundreds of schools into a state of chaos and ceaseless budget-cutting, broken the "Minnesota Miracle" compact of responsible revenue-sharing between state and local governments, and intensified the gridlock of our transportation system. Literally dozens of Pawlenty's Republican colleagues in the state Legislature went down to defeat embracing his agenda.

But not Pawlenty. When his DFL opponent Mike Hatch accused him of "pulling the ladder of opportunity up behind him" by letting the cost of in-state college tuition skyrocket, Pawlenty genially acknowledged that not raising taxes during a budget deficit caused some investments to lag—and proposed that all Minnesota high school students in the top quarter of their class get a year's free tuition. When Hatch claimed Pawlenty was being duplicitous in his no-tax pledge by imposing more than $1 billion in fees and forcing the tax burden to devolve to local property tax rolls, the governor deftly proposed a cap on property taxes.

Corey Anderson

In the crucial final weeks of the campaign, Pawlenty relied on television ads showing him in casual work clothes, strolling off a rural porch toward the camera while thanking the voters with doe-eyed sincerity for allowing him the opportunity to serve them. Meanwhile, another ad campaign, mostly funded by $500,000 from one of the Texas-based ringleaders of the Swift Boat attack ads against presidential candidate John Kerry two years earlier, depicted Hatch as a nasty, spiteful son of a bitch. Right on cue, frustrated by a gaffe from his running mate for lieutenant governor, Hatch reportedly called a male member of the media a "Republican whore" at the exact point in the campaign where it would be the voters' final impression. Throw in a nerdy third-party moderate who siphoned a lot of anti-Pawlenty votes from Hatch, and Pawlenty was able to ride out the Democratic tsunami by a margin of less than 22,000 votes—out of more than two million ballots cast.

Those who stuck around to see Pawlenty's arrival on election night were bleary, bewildered, and belligerent, primed to seize upon the rhetorical red meat that is a staple of these victory speeches. Instead, the governor delivered a muted personal address that immediately engendered buzz about a "new" Tim Pawlenty.

"I want to start by asking you for your help. This is a time tonight to be humble. It is a time to be grateful," he said. "And it's a time as a state and a nation to come together, and I think we need to do our part to start here and start now, tonight. And over the next four years it is going to be different than the last four years. We have different leadership in Congress. We have different leadership in St. Paul. We have big challenges ahead of us.... In the coming weeks, we are going to build a common agenda to make Minnesota an even better place. It's going to include improving education and health care and the job climate and roads and many other things."

Less than a week later, during a speech at the Midwest States Health Reform Summit in Minneapolis, Pawlenty stunned his supporters and opponents alike by announcing that "Minnesota should move toward universal [health insurance] coverage," and that "moving toward a cover-all-kids program in the next legislative session is a good next step." For those who couldn't believe their ears, he spelled out his intent with specific numbers. "We have an opportunity in Minnesota, we have between 70 and 90 thousand uninsured children. About 60 percent already qualify [for health insurance] and then beyond that, we now have the resources to provide coverage for those children."

It seemed an epic reversal. During his bloodletting 2003 budget session, this same governor threw an estimated 38,000 Minnesotans off the state-supported health care rolls and snatched $192 million from a fund specifically dedicated to providing health care to the working poor. Two years later, Pawlenty castigated hundreds of thousands of MinnesotaCare enrollees for accepting what he called "welfare health care." These were parents and children from working families who paid discounted monthly insurance premiums to the state because the coverage offered by their employer was either too expensive or nonexistent. Yet that same year, the state's infamous government shutdown was triggered in part by Pawlenty's desire to again raid MinnesotaCare's dedicated funding source to pay for general fund budget items.

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