The Smiling Face of Pain

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

"The raw numbers on revenue aren't what you look at," counters Jay Kiedrowski, former commissioner of finance under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich and currently a senior fellow at the U of M's Humphrey Institute. "The real test is, what is the price of government as a percentage of your personal income?" And despite large increases in fees and local property taxes, the government is taking less per dollar than it was before. "Not all that long ago, we were at 17 cents. That has gone down, and if you look at 2010, 2011, it looks like it will go below 16 cents," Kiedrowski says. "We have traditionally been a higher-spending state but also traditionally a faster-growing state. That is a winning tradition we want to be careful about screwing up."

To some extent, it's already screwed up. For almost the entire second half of the 20th century, Minnesota's job growth outpaced the national average. But according to the latest Financial Report from the Minnesota Department of Finance, published in November 2006, "There are now 2.3 percent more jobs in Minnesota than at the start of the 2001 recession [the year Pawlenty was elected]; the national growth rate for that period is 2.4 percent."

 

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the "new" Pawlenty and the tyro first elected in 2001 has less to do with who he is or what he has done than about what he has become: a rising star in national politics. In August 2007, he will become chair of the National Governors Association, an august position that enhances his visibility among national political correspondents, improves his networking capabilities in states led by fellow Republican governors, and polishes his resume.

Next year, of course, Pawlenty will be hosting the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, where the party's presidential nominee will be chosen. He is currently co-chair—to date, the only co-chair—of John McCain's nascent "exploratory" campaign for president, and is almost unanimously regarded as McCain's most likely VP choice, should the erstwhile maverick bag the nomination.

Of perhaps even greater value than being linked with McCain, Pawlenty's buoyant demeanor has been likened to that of the Great Communicator himself, Old Dutch, by more than one national pundit. Back in November, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics described Pawlenty as someone who "can appear almost Reaganesque. He's a solid conservative with a happy face put on it. He doesn't come across mean or antagonistic." Two months later, in a January 29 profile in the conservative bible the National Review, Pawlenty is described as someone who can "talk about challenging issues, and propose new ideas (sometimes even risky ones) but do so with a smile." Author John Hood also praises Pawlenty's ability to "exude a comforting confidence...think Ronald Reagan."

Approximately six years ago, Pawlenty abruptly abandoned his plans to challenge Paul Wellstone for a U.S. Senate seat, deferring to Norm Coleman and pivoting toward a run for governor after receiving a phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney. Last month, Pawlenty launched his 2007 State of the State speech with a lengthy tribute to the members of Minnesota's armed forces. He proposed a tax exemption for their military pension benefits, and a Minnesota GI bill for their college expenses. He endorsed full funding for the National Guard's budget requests, and "dramatic increases for Minnesota's veterans programs." He recommended that Minnesotans buy a "Support Our Troops" license plate, visit his website and sign up for his wife's Military Family Care Initiative, donate money to the Minnesota Military Family Foundation or the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund, attend a welcome home ceremony, or just pick up the restaurant tab for "one of these heroes and their families."

But the key sentences in the speech were these: "We need to do our duty by supporting them and all members of the military with our words and our deeds. We need a surge of support for our military families and we need it now."

It was probably just coincidental that that very same week, President Bush was characterizing his troop escalation in Iraq as a "surge," and that the highest-profile defender of this overwhelmingly unpopular strategy among elected officials was John McCain. But if it wasn't a coincidence, then the smiling face of pain shamelessly carried water for his Arizona patron that day. It leads one to believe that long after Cheney and McCain have disappeared from the political landscape, updated versions of the "new" Tim Pawlenty will still be in play.

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