The Man McCain Didn't Pick
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
(Updated 3:40 p.m., Sept. 10, 2008)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - If Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was the ultimate outside-the-box vice presidential pick for John McCain's GOP ticket, the governor of this state - Republican Tim Pawlenty - would have been the quintessential inside-the-box choice. Pawlenty, long considered a leading candidate for the VP slot, is a conservative who has managed to win solid approval ratings in a state that tends toward the center, if not the left.
Minnesota has elected nine Republican governors since 1938, but most of them came out of an ideological tradition that today would be called moderate, even progressive. At various times, these governors pushed for higher spending on social services, strong civil rights laws, robust urban planning and aggressive environmental protection efforts.
By contrast, Pawlenty comes from a Republican Party that puts tax-cutting, limited government and conservative social policy atop the agenda. (Pawlenty is anti-abortion.)
Republicans and even some Democrats here were surprised and somewhat disappointed to see their governor passed over for the GOP ticket as the party convened here for its convention, particularly when they compared his record and the time he spent boosting McCain on the campaign trail this year to what Palin brings to the table. Reportedly, Pawlenty was the final runner-up to Palin.
But while the second-term Pawlenty still appears to be in ascendance, he has actually become popular here less for what he has accomplished than for putting the brakes on agenda items pursued by the Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature. A Democratic takeover of the state House two years ago has played a major role in defining his policy impact on the state.
"He definitely takes pride in some of the things he's blocked from happening," state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D), a frequent sparring partner of the governor, said in an interview here.
Pawlenty lost the biggest showdown of the past year, which involved his veto of a $6.6 billion transportation bill that had been assembled after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. After he vetoed the bill, which he called an "overreaching, massive tax increase," Democratic leaders were able to convince the business community - which generally sides with Pawlenty and the GOP - to support an override. A few Republicans defied the governor by siding with Democrats, which produced just enough votes to complete the override.
At least one former Republican governor of Minnesota - Al Quie, who served from 1979 to 1983 - said in an interview here that he would not have vetoed the bill. But he added that for Pawlenty's purposes, the end result was favorable: He burnished his anti-tax credentials by vetoing the measure, but avoided a voter backlash by seeing it enacted anyway.
Pawlenty has worked with Democrats to enact a number of significant bills - on health care, veterans' issues and alternative energy , among others . He has also advocated drug importation from Canada, an idea more popular among Democrats than Republicans, as a way of reducing prescription prices.
Other accomplishments, not always with a lot of bipartisan support, include enacting merit pay for teachers, slashing the budget deficit, enacting pro-gun laws and reducing Minnesota's ranking on the list of most heavily taxed states.
On alternative energy, especially, Pawlenty has become a national leader among governors for implementing rules that require utilities to use more alternative fuels, such as wind and solar. " When his legacy is written, they will undeniably write about alternative energy," said Minnesota Chamber of Commerce elections director Mike Franklin
"One of the things I think he's good at is finding common ground, which is not necessarily the political center - he understands the difference," Laura Brod (R), the Assistant House Minority Leader.
Lawmakers and legislative observers say that the Democratic takeover of the state House in 2006 was a watershed moment for inter-branch relations. The former Republican Speaker, Steve Sviggum, was close to Pawlenty. But when the GOP was ousted, the governor had to deal with Kelliher, who is credited with being a savvy negotiator.
"I think he finds common ground when he knows it's politically important," Kelliher said.
Kelliher suggests that Pawlenty's vice presidential audition over the first six months of this year was another factor shaping his performance.
"He couldn't go into the audition fighting with legislators in St. Paul," she said. "If he'd threatened a special session during the Democratic convention, I'm sure our legislators would have been happy to oblige, but it would not have looked very good for him."
In some ways, Pawlenty's level of popularity defies the state's current economic situation. The state's jobless rate - 5.8 percent - is the highest it's been in more than two decades, and Democrats charge that the governor hasn't done as well as other governors in the region at promoting economic development.
But elected officials and political observers credit Pawlenty with two skills that have served him well so far, and which should aid him nationally if - as most observers expect - he continues assembling a national profile. Pawlenty, a past chairman of the National Governors Association, is widely envisioned as a presidential contender if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) does not win the White House this fall.
The first skill is his ability to articulate an ideology that energizes his conservative base without alienating centrists and liberals.
"He is conservative without seeming strident and ideological, is crafty in dealing with his Democratic opponents in the legislature and is smart and very well schooled in policy substance," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier.
His other strength is personal skills. He is said to be just as good at pig-judging contests as working a room full of millionaires.
"He doesn't policy-wonk you to death," state Senate Assistant Minority Leader Geoff Michel (R) said. "He will throw in a sports analogy, make fun of himself and then throw in reference to Saturday Night Live. He's kind of our first iPod governor."
Observers here see no downside to Pawlenty's vice presidential courtship, saying it raised his profile nationally without branding him in a way that is unacceptable to swing voters.
Going forward, if he isn't tapped for a cabinet post in a GOP administration, Pawlenty's most difficult path may actually be running for a third term. Not only are third terms difficult for any governor to secure, but Pawlenty has never actually garnered a majority of votes in either of his two gubernatorial elections. In each case, a candidate from the Jesse Ventura-founded Independence Party won enough votes to keep Pawlenty under 50 percent.
An alternative could be a run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 against Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another popular politician here. Some here dub that matchup a "clash of the titans."
"America will be seeing a lot more of Tim Pawlenty," said Minnesota GOP chairman Ron Carey.
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.