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Tim Pawlenty Debut: The Un-Palin, Un-Romney Makes His White House Case for 2012

4 years ago
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Why was Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota wearing jeans this month at a meeting of formally attired governors in Boston? Fashion mystery solved: He was rushing off to a county Republican picnic 67 miles away in New Hampshire, the lead-off presidential primary state.

There's no mystery about Pawlenty's political intentions, which partly explains why he drew 39 journalists to his debut this week at a ritual Washington breakfast -- "one of the biggest turnouts in recent breakfast history," said host David Cook of the Christian Science Monitor. Another reason is that, unlike other 2012 prospects such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, he is a relative unknown.

This was no light breakfast. It amounted to an hourlong audition for commander in chief, with a side helping of fiscal responsibility and enough tough rhetoric to prove that "Minnesota nice" is a relative concept in politics.

To refresh fading memories, Pawlenty was a finalist in his party's 2008 veepstakes, only to be nudged aside by Palin, then governor of Alaska. From that he seems to have taken a lesson that it's good to be identified as new and different, and he is trying to locate himself within that sector of the Grand Old Party.

Pawlenty predicted that after November, there will be six to eight Republican governors and senators who are women, minorities or both. That, he said, will be "confirmation of the Republican Party modernizing while still being true to its values." He said it will also be transformational in breaking the stereotype of Republicans as "middle-aged white-guy CEOs" who belong to country clubs, drink Chablis (umm, who drinks that these days?) and play polo on weekends (does anyone know anyone who plays polo?)

In any case, Pawlenty presented himself as part of this transformation. Sure he's white, male, a governor and, on this occasion, dressed in a regulation dark suit and striped tie. But he's also a man of humble origins: truck-driver dad, youngest of five kids, first in family to graduate from college, mom died when he was 16. When you're in a VFW hall trying to talk to a voter who is wearing a Carhartt jacket and drinking a Miller High Life, Pawlenty said, "it helps to have a messenger that has walked in their shoes a bit."

As fate would have it, just as Pawlenty was saying all that, an e-mail arrived from Romney to announce endorsements in North Carolina. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is from a well-to-do political family and made a fortune running a private equity firm. Last year he sold his Utah ski house for nearly $5.25 million and his suburban Boston home for $3.5 million, which leaves him with an $895,000 townhouse near Boston and waterfront houses worth $22 million in New Hampshire and California. Point hammered home: Romney is rich, Pawlenty is not.

With his heavy focus on policy specifics, Pawlenty appeared to be sending an "I'm not Palin" message as well. I thought perhaps he might open with a narrative about the Minnesota miracle, some list of signature achievements. But instead he said he was just back from his fifth trip to Iraq and third to Afghanistan, and wanted to give us his impressions.

That is a lot of war-zone visits for a governor, dating to 2004. Clearly Pawlenty wanted to etch in our minds that he is a serious student of our wars, familiar with the region, the players and the state of play. In short, commander-in-chief material.

He is no Michael Steele on Afghanistan. Pawlenty says Americans need "strategic patience" there. "This idea that we're going to set an arbitrary deadline, an inflexible deadline" has very damaging ripple effects, he said. He called it "noteworthy" that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level administration figures appear to be "stepping back" from their July 2011 deadline to leave Afghanistan. Click play below to watch a clip of Pawlenty's Afghanistan comments:

To be fair, it's not clear that there was ever an inflexible deadline. In his December 2009 speech at West Point, Obama said we would "begin the transfer" of forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011 and "execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."

Pawlenty's critique of Obama goes way beyond the war in Afghanistan. He says the Arizona immigration law has been "wildly and irresponsibly and recklessly mischaracterized . . . by people who are quoted in the press, including by the president of the United States." He calls Obama's stimulus bill too large, too slow and mostly "government sustenance." More financial firms should have been allowed to fail, Pawlenty said, because "in the marketplace, you have to have consequences for reckless behavior." And the government was wrong to "take over" the auto companies ("the story underneath the story is that it was a soft landing for the UAW").

As for Obama's deficit reduction commission, Pawlenty said it would be a shame if it wasted time coming up with a package that includes tax increases. "I don't think any argument can be credibly made that Americans are undertaxed," he said. "And as a matter of realpolitik," he added, if Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress, tax increases would be a non-starter.

In his own state, he said, he slashed the rate of spending growth and now, "for first time in 150 years, I've cut spending in real terms." As for the feds, he said the government should cap Medicaid spending and turn it into a defined block grant to states. He also said he would "means test" cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security, so upper-income people would receive smaller increases; base the adjustments on wages instead of inflation; and offer new people coming into the system the option of private accounts.

Medicare, he added, should pay doctors and hospitals based on health outcomes rather than the "astonishingly stupid" fee-for-service model. That is a goal of the new health care law, which Pawlenty called "the Obamacare bill" and said would be a GOP target this fall.

Which brings us back to, oh yes, politics. It must be said that the words "2012" and "Sarah Palin" did not come up until perhaps 40 minutes into the hourlong breakfast. They were first spoken by a reporter, and they drew Pawlenty's briefest, least interesting response of the morning. He said he'd make a decision about the future early in 2011 and "it won't be dependent on what other people do or don't do." Palin, he said, can afford to wait longer than others because of her 'built-in level" of name recognition. Click play below to watch video of Pawlenty's comments on Palin:

T-Paw (who embraces the nickname) had nothing else to say about Palin. Asked about Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and the Tea Party, he praised them both. Bachmann, he said, is "a powerful, strong, clear voice" for conservatives and the country. The Tea Party, like any group, has a few bad apples, he replied to a question about racism, but overall is an invaluable, invigorating force. "I don't get overly worried about this raw energy that you see at the grass-roots level," he said, and recalled "at one time Ronald Reagan led a political insurgency."

If Pawlenty has a sense of humor, and I'm assured he does, it wasn't in evidence. I started scribbling -- and noticed others doing the same -- a few times when Pawlenty veered into what you might call inelegant turns of phrase. At one point, he riffed on average voters who wonder, "Are my kids' schools going to be good or are they going to suck?" At another, warning against tolerating illegal immigration, he referred to what befell New York when people were allowed to "pee on the sidewalks" (that led, he said, to purse-snatching, face-punching, window-breaking and "putting guns in your ribs.")

The impression Pawlenty wanted to leave was conservative, combative and substantive, and in that he succeeded. Whether any two-term governor with a law degree can compellingly paint himself as a working-class Everyman is more of a stretch. It'll be easier if Everywoman Palin doesn't run, and Romney does.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter. Listen to her discuss Pawlenty on WCCO-Minneapolis.

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