Posted by: Jeff | May 5, 2010

The National Infatuation with Tim Pawlenty

Photo: Minnesota Public Radio

That isn’t shared by Minnesotans.

I can certainly understand that many in the GOP are looking ahead to 2012 with some trepidation – the two most prolific and likely presidential candidates – Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney – are erratic and not-so-secretly pro-health care reform, respectively.  There really isn’t a prolific figure able to appeal across the breadth of the conservative base.

So the race is on among GOP elites to create such a Republican hero.  And somehow, they’ve landed on Tim Pawlenty.  From Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter who now poses as a journalist at the Washington Post:

As governor, Pawlenty has held the growth of spending to just over 2 percent annually. Last year, he cut state spending in real terms — the first time that has happened in 150 years. “We cut everything except public safety and K through 12 education,” he says. “We changed the entitlement structure.” All while moving Minnesota off the list of the top 10 most heavily taxed states.

Pawlenty is the successful conservative governor of one of the most liberal states in the union — as if Ronald Reagan had been elected in Sweden. One explanation is his disarming, beer-sharing niceness, which is among Minnesota’s main exports to the nation (exception: the seething Sen. Al Franken).

In normal circumstances, this virtue would be a pleasing contrast to President Obama’s increasingly touchy, brittle public persona. But there are drawbacks to being a nice guy in an angry time. No Tea Party activist will find Pawlenty the most enraged choice. His attempts at stump-speech outrage come across like a Baptist trying to swear; the words are right, but the melody is lacking. Which raises the question: In a party of the incensed, can Pawlenty win the nomination without sacrificing his authenticity?

Pawlenty responds that niceness is not inconsistent with toughness. He recounts his confrontation with Minnesota’s public transportation union to limit its overgenerous health benefits. “People were standing outside my house holding signs. We shut down the [bus] system for 44 days.” Eventually, like Reagan staring down the air traffic controllers union in 1981, Pawlenty got his concessions.

You can practically see the starbursts in his eyes.

This is a bizarre editorial to me, because even as a resident-in-exile, I know several of the things Gerson says above to be, well, not true.  Take education funding, for example:

From FY 2002 to FY 2011, total state aid is expected to fall by $1,412 per pupil, while school property taxes are estimated to grow by $1,145, for a net revenue loss of $268 per pupil.

That’s not an insignificant budget cut.  In fact, it’s cuts like these that result in widespread teacher layoffs in school districts throughout the state.  I should know – my family has been affected.

Another error is Gerson’s implication that Pawlenty is “successful” as Governor of the state.  This is a contentious statement by any metric, but in the court of public opinion, Gerson is guilty of fibbing pretty badly:

The latest numbers, courtesy of a new SurveyUSA poll of 500 Minnesotans, find Pawlenty’s job approval rating at just 42 percent, with 52 percent disapproving.

This marks the lowest approval rating ever for Pawlenty, according to a Smart Politics analysis of more than 70 similarly-worded non-partisan public opinion polls dating back to the onset of his first term in office in 2003, including more than 50 polls conducted by SurveyUSA since Spring 2005.

Oops.  The numbers are even worse among women, with whom one might expect the authentic and charming Pawlenty to connect: 39% approval against 59% disapproval.  If Obama had those kinds of numbers, there would no doubt be cries for impeachment on Fox News.

Gerson, a former Bush administration official, probably connects with Pawlenty for another reason altogether: executive overreach.  Just today, the Minnesota State Supreme Court rebuked Pawlenty for overstepping his authority as Governor by rescinding budget allocations made by the State Legislature rather than working with the Legislature to create a balanced budget (he vociferously rejected a DFL proposal to eliminate tax cuts and raise projected revenue, opting to unilaterally slash budgets for social programs across the state).  From the Wall Street Journal:

In a 4-3 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Pawlenty exceeded his authority by “unallotting,” or taking funding away from, a nutrition program for low-income residents before the budget process was completed.

All of which is to say that his popularity is not likely to go up soon.

So have conservatives found their 2012 hero in Pawlenty?  They better hope not.

From FY 2002 to FY 2011, total state aid is expected to fall by $1,412 per pupil, while school property taxes are estimated to grow by $1,145, for a net revenue loss of $268 per pupil.

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