Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pawlenty’s bad judgment days


Tim Pawlenty announced the start of his presidential campaign on Monday, once we’d gotten all that Judgment Day business out of the way. The former Minnesota governor said, by way of the obligatory YouTube campaign starter pistol and a personal appearance in Des Moines, Iowa, that he was running because “It’s time for a new approach. It’s time for America’s president — and anyone who wants to be president — to look you in the eye and tell you the truth.”

“President Obama's policies have failed. But more than that, he won't even tell us the truth about what it's really going to take to get out of the mess we're in,” he said. “I’m going to take a different approach. I am going to tell you the truth.”

“I’ll unite our party and unite our nation,” Pawlenty said. As supporters applauded, he added, “Leadership in a time of crisis isn’t about telling people what you think they want to hear, it’s about telling the truth.”

But even before declaring, the former governor has long been well acquainted with the impact of certain laws common to all politicians, and especially those with the stones to run for president: some truths are more accurate than others; and (cribbing from Faulkner) the past isn’t a dead issue; in too many tragically inconvenient ways, it isn’t even past.



With the recent revelations of previous budgetary sleight-of-hand, a potentially serious strategic error in the very state he needs to make a good early showing next year, and the disclosure of a 2008 pardon that’s yielded disastrous and inescapably tragic consequences, T-Paw faces a Judgment Day of his own in the runup to the Iowa caucuses.

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It’s been an article of faith that what Pawlenty brings to a badly depleted Republican table is Fiscal Responsibility. His campaign talking points — what marketers and businessmen might call his U.S.P., the Unique Selling Proposition that makes him a better candidate than anyone else — is that T-Paw balanced X budgets in a row and left the state of Minnesota financially better than he found it.

Digging down, however, you find Pawlenty’s learned some magic tricks on his way to the campaign trail. The National Journal, with information from the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, reported that Pawlenty cut spending by borrowing $1 billion from tobacco-settlement funds earmarked for health care; another $400 million from the state’s fund destined for health care for the state’s low-income citizens; and another $1.4 billion from the state’s K-12 education funding. He delayed $1.9 billion in current school funding (MinnPost reported in December) and also took $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money — money from the Obama stimulus plan. Pawlenty claimed late last year that, by way of such gymnastic accounting, he’d leave Minnesota with a $399 million surplus.

Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican more animated by the practical than the political, had a refreshingly straightforward take on T-Paw’s accomplishments. Carlson, a man intellectually independent enough to have voted for Obama in 2008 without his head exploding, spoke to Ed Schultz on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” on Monday.

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“This is about competence,” Carlson said. “I just happen to be an old-fashioned Republican who thinks the White House should be occupied by our nation’s best and our brightest, and I think our party should nominate our best and our brightest, and I do not believe that Tim Pawlenty’s record on Minnesota warrants any kind of advancement.”



Carlson, who may be more of a reporter than he realizes, told Schultz that in the eight years before Pawlenty became Minnesota governor, state property taxes increased by $716 million. In his two terms as governor, Pawlenty presided over a property tax increase of $2.5 billion.

“We were in a deficit position from 2003 on, long before the recession,” Carlson said.

Carlson thus appeared to take a chain saw to one of the central planks of the Pawlenty campaign message. “To run around saying he balanced the budget without raising taxes is not true,” he said. “What he did was cut spending on the state side, push the responsibility to local governments, and local governments raised the property tax to pay the bills. That’s not solving the problem, that’s just pushing the problem down the pike.”

T-Paw refuted his critics, including Carlson, who’s apparently been chapping the governor’s butt for some time: “It’s not accurate,” he told Matt Lauer on “Today” Show. “Eight years I balanced the budgets every time, they’re talking about a projected deficit down the road that’s based on a lot of big spending increases that I don’t support and wouldn’t have allowed if I’d continued on as governor.”

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T-Paw may have committed another blunder the day he threw his hat in the ring. In Iowa, where he declared on Monday, Pawlenty called for an end to subsidies for ethanol in the state that needs them most.

“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,” Pawlenty said. “We need to do it gradually. We need to do it fairly. But we need to do it.”

Some opponents returned fire immediately. Walt Wendland, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, told Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times that “Iowans look forward to Governor Pawlenty further detailing his plans to phase out petroleum subsidies, perhaps in a speech in Houston, Tex.”

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There was, no doubt, a calculus at work in the Pawlenty camp that the candidate would win points for a tough-love approach to the matter of subsidies. But Pawlenty may have made enemies, and certainly agnostics, of the very bedrock Iowa conservatives he’ll need early in the caucuses next year for a serious run at the presidency. Many of the same farmers who’ll see the Pawlenty Plan, whatever it is, however gradualist its execution might be, as still taking money out of the pockets, and food off their tables.


Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democratic wheel with broad knowledge of campaigning and politics, spoke to that on MSNBC’s “The Last Word.”

“The position he’s put himself in is, not only does he alienate Iowa farmers by saying, ‘we’re going to get rid of the ethanol subsidies,’ his party has refused to get rid of the oil subsidies,” Dean said Monday. “So he’s now in the position of undercutting Iowa farmers while he supports the oil industry with taxpayers’ money ... This is gonna be a problem for Tim Pawlenty.”

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That’s not the last problem for T-Paw either. It was bad enough that he didn’t utter an immediate word of commiseration on his Twitter account to the people of North Minnesota rebuilding their lives after a tornado hit the day before, killing one person, injuring 30 and destroying 100 homes.



Now, fresh attention is being paid to a story by Nick Pinto in the Dec. 10 CityPages, a blog of the Minneapolis/St. Paul News. Diplomatically put, the story suggests that the former governor faces another knock on his judgment, one whose origins had tragic consequences for his former constituents.

The details deserve to be read, well, in detail (here be the link). Here’s the snapshot: In 2008, as a member of the three-member Board of Pardons, Pawlenty, with the state Attorney General and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, granted a special pardon — a pardon extraordinary — to a convicted sex offender, Jeremy Giefer, who wanted his record cleared so his wife could open a day-care center. In their home.

Upon his release from prison for a 1994 statutory rape conviction (for violating the woman who would become his wife) Giefer reoffended, garnering 11 counts for sexual misconduct, including, allegedly, the rape of his own daughter after Pawlenty and his fellow board members had granted Giefer the pardon.

Clearly, it wasn’t Pawlenty’s call alone. But, Pinto reports, “while the responsibility for the decisions is shared equally by the board members, Governor Pawlenty is likely to feel most of the heat for the Giefer pardon. Pawlenty has gone to great lengths as governor to position himself as a social conservative who's tough on crime and tougher on sex criminals.

“That carefully manicured persona is now in jeopardy. If Pawlenty's political opponents want fodder for an attack ad when the campaign gets dirty, they couldn't ask for much better than the story about how he voted to clear the record of a sex offender now charged with habitually raping his own daughter.”

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The challenges for Tim Pawlenty are therefore, big right out of the gate. The already big work of establishing name recognition, and using a machete of marketing and effective fundraising to separate himself from the pack of rock-stupid cartoon characters seeking the nomination or considering a run at it, has been complicated by what The News is calling “Pawlenty’s PardonGate.”

Pawlenty’s well-built scaffold of probity & rectitude was brought to something more than a wobble once news Web sites and blogs in the Twin Cities and beyond began writing headlines like (or identical to) “Jeremy Giefer could be Tim Pawlenty’s Willie Horton.”

And if that weren’t finally bad enough, his fortunes as a presidential contender may have been cheekily distilled in a recent edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which had the outsized cojones to publish news of Pawlenty’s announcements for the presidency not on page one but on the Obituaries page.

That snarky exercise of editorial license may be the chronicle of a campaign death foretold.

Image credits: Pawlenty top: Still from Pawlenty 2012 announcement video. Pawlenty in Des Moines: NBC News. Obituaries page: © 2011 St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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