Tim Pawlenty: Nice guy with a tough record?
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who spoke at the Tea Party Patriots' summit last weekend, is out with a new video praising the Tea Party.
I have a couple of observations.
First, any candidate who wants to capture the GOP presidential nomination is going to have to secure a broad base of support -- from Tea Partyers, Christian conservatives, Main Street Republicans, etc. Pawlenty is smart to appeal to the Tea Party without running down other segments of the party. That approach preserves his "nice" image -- and there's no point in being the divider in the race.
Second, Pawlenty's rap has been that he is rhetorically less than stellar. In his speech earlier in the year at the National Press Club, voters have seen a more muscular delivery from him. But frankly, his voice quality in the video is a bit screechy, and he'll have to find a comfortable tone to use on the stump.
There is a way to show "toughness" other than in speeches, however. Unlike Newt Gingrich, and to a large extent Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has a record of standing up to Democrats and to labor unions (which are much on the mind of conservatives these days).
In his campaign book (written and published well before the Wisconsin labor standoff), he details his confrontation as governor with the transit workers, who went on strike for 44 days. He recounts that under a previous governor, the union had negotiated lifetime health benefits for any employee who worked in the transit system for 15 years, even if that employee went on to work elsewhere. Pawlenty writes of the Metropolitan Council that runs the bus and light rail system: "In 2002, it was facing hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded liability because of this extraordinary benefit, and that liability was growing rapidly." He wanted to rein in those obligations, and it was clear the Twin Cities were headed for a strike.The horror stories mounted about possible "doomsday scenarios," as Pawlenty's book dubs them. Pawlenty held firm in negotiations, the scenarios never emerged, and Pawlenty made the case to voters that they didn't have luxurious benefits like the transit workers. Eventually the workers came back and lifetime health care was ended for new hires.
Intrigued by this now familiar-sounding incident (which neither Pawlenty nor the press has talked much about), I called Brian McClung, Pawlenty's former spokesman and deputy chief of staff. He remains close to the former governor. McClung recalled that the pressure to avoid a strike was intense. He told me that the local news outlets "covered it like it was Y2K" and predicted "the streets would be mayhem, cars would be flying, there'd be blood flowing down the highway." He also recalled some very raucous demonstrations, including some right outside the governor's house. McClung chuckled: "There was one banner, 'Tim Pawlenty is a weapon of mass transit destruction.'"
Pawlenty's book also recounts his standoff with the legislature, which resulted in a nine-day partial shutdown of the government in 2005. Pawlenty explains that the state was facing a $4-billion deficit, which the Democratic-controlled state senate wanted to fill with a tax hike. Pawlenty refused. The legislature reached the end of its session with significant areas of state government yet to be funded. Pawlenty prevailed on much of his agenda, including a merit-based teachers' compensation plan. He turned back the tax hike, but did relent on a cigarette "fee," designated to pay for smokers' health-care costs. (Looking back, Pawlenty writes in his book that he regrets agreeing even to the cigarette fee.)
McClung said that the lesson from these episodes is that you "have to stay strong and battle through" confrontations. That's not a bad campaign message, especially in light of recent events.
Pawlenty is unlikely to project a personality as tough and aggressive as New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie (R). Maybe he shouldn't try, and should, instead, stick to a voice and tone that is comfortable for him. If his record is as good as he and his supporters think it is, maybe it's better to show voters what he's done rather than tell (or holler at) them. But then the campaign is just beginning.
| March 1, 2011; 4:23 PM ET
Categories: 2012 campaign
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