Tim Pawlenty interview (Part 1)
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is doing what candidates do before announcing a presidential run. He's written a book and is stepping up his outreach. On Thursday, he'll speak at the National Press Club, and he's scheduled to appear at the Conservative Political Action Conference next month. He's featured in a new Weekly Standard profile, and, unlike Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour, he made no headline-grabbing gaffes.
I spoke with Pawlenty by phone on Sunday. Living up to his reputation as an example of "Minnesota nice," he apologized for running late due to his child's volleyball game. I began by asking about the Arizona shooting. He said, "It's a terrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are at this moment fighting for the lives." He also expressed his and his wife's condolences and prayers for the slain and their families. As for the rush to judgment, he advised, "I always caution people not to jump to conclusions after tragedies when all the facts are not known. I've been through this a number of times as governor." He observed that the shooter "appears to be mentally disturbed. Mentally disturbed people do senseless and irrational things."
We then shifted to his book. It's clearly an effort to introduce Pawlenty to voters, many of whom have little idea who he is. "I wrote the book," he said, "because I leaned a number of things along the way growing up and as governor that I think are instructive." He added: "Secondarily, people wonder 'Who is this person?'" That appears to be the goal here: to offer a personal profile, rather than a policy tome.
Political consultants would call this "shaping the narrative," although Pawlenty demurred from labeling his working-class upbringing as a "campaign theme." He preferred to call it "helpful perspective," observing: "We are all products of where we came from. It informs who we are." He made the case that "growing up in a meatpacking town, a lunch bucket town" helps him to connect with voters in tough economic times. "When you walk into a VFW hall or a bar with a guy drinking a Miller beer... it helps to have walked in their shoes." He added: "People say to Republicans, 'Oh, you don't know what it's like not to be able to put a full tank of gas in the car. You don't know what it's like not to afford college, you rich Republicans.' I can look them in the eye and say, 'Yeah I do.' It gives you a little credibility."
Pawlenty has recently been talking about the perils of Big Business, Big Labor and Big Government. In an ABC News interview on Friday, he argued: "I think what you got now is people have figured out that the country has been disproportionately influenced by big government, big unions and big business and they have coalesced into an iron triangle to basically screw everybody else." He told me that this phenomenon could easily be called "crony government." He pointed to big government, public employee unions and the "bailout business" (specifically citing GM and the TARP recipient banks), which he contends are "conspiring at a political level to secure their own interests." He stressed that he's not anti-business, but takes exception to those players who are trying to "rig the system so they don't have to be competitive."
We shifted to foreign policy and national security. I asked him about the recently announced defense budget cuts and the reduction of troop strength. He began by stressing his foreign policy credentials. In addition to leading the national guard, he said, "I've been to Iraq five times and Afghanistan three times." On potential budget cuts, he argued that we need to give those risking their lives "every tool and resource" needed to "do their very best." He cautioned: "As we move into a period of austerity, we need to use priority budgeting, like I did as governor. We need to rank what we do. Some things may not be cut or may get even more money. In Minnesota, we put veterans at the top of the list and they were exempted from cuts, in some cases got more." He said, however, that he doesn't think the Pentagon should be exempt from scrutiny. "The Pentagon should be reviewed for inefficiencies and streamlined. But this is not an area for scrimping or cutting corners."
Pawlenty has embraced a Reagan-esque, forward-leaning public policy agenda: "I want the 21st century to be the American century. I want America to be the most successful, dominating and prevailing country." He contends that you cannot accomplish this by retrenching, but that "it is not all about purely military power." Unlike those who say that we have to focus exclusively on domestic economics, he sees a linkage between national security and economic prosperity. He argued that you cannot prosper or invent and design in a dynamic economy "unless we are secure." He warned: "The notion that we can simply retreat economically or from a national security stand point... is incomplete and misguided." He also made the case that we have been deprived of soft power "leverage" by our fiscal situation. Our ability to press China on human rights," he argued, is diminished when "China has so much leverage." He termed himself a "strong believer in America projecting our image and values," but said he is concerned that our fiscal situation has diminished our ability to do so.
In Part 2 of my interview with Pawlenty, I'll share what he had to say about the influences in his life, his wife, Mary, the lessons of the 2010 midterms, and his thoughts on the 2012 campaign.
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