Kevin Krawczyk is disappointed. A manager at the Family Christian Store chain, he is hosting a book-signing for Tim Pawlenty in Lombard, Ill. “We were expecting more,” he says. The shelves are lined with many untouched copies of Courage to Stand: An American Story. Under the author’s name, the book cover identifies him: “Former Governor of Minnesota.” Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney don’t need such lines on their book covers.
As Pawlenty prepares to run for the Republican nomination for president, his main problem is simple: Most Americans have never heard of him. Republicans tend to prefer known commodities: Every winner of the Republican nomination in the last 70 years had a national reputation a year before the primaries. Courage to Stand is not selling well. Yet Pawlenty may just be the Republicans’ strongest presidential candidate for 2012. Compared with his competitors, he is either more conservative, more electable, or both.
Pawlenty, 50, has made no formal announcement, but his schedule — including the book tour, a second speech in two years at CPAC, and plenty of stops in Iowa — means he is running for president. His campaign will probably emphasize two colors: blue and purple, describing respectively the collar of his family background and the political alignment of his state.
The book, which is pretty good by the dismal standards of the genre, describes the South St. Paul of his childhood as a meatpacking town where the milkman (and the beer man) still went door to door. He has fond memories, but it was not an idyll. Ovarian cancer killed his mother when he was 16. His father lost his job with a trucking company soon afterward, and Pawlenty had to work in the produce department of a local grocery store to make ends meet and pay tuition at the University of Minnesota. He was the first kid in his family to get a college degree. Pawlenty doesn’t peddle resentment of the rich. But he does want voters to know that he has seen hard times and struggled to succeed.
In high school, Pawlenty started to get interested in public affairs: reading U.S. News and World Report, arguing with his dad about Social Security. At college he handed out brochures for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, which he says led to people shouting at and, in one case, spitting on him. Still in college in 1982, he worked on Republican senator David Durenberger’s reelection campaign. Then it was on to law school, where he met his wife, Mary. By all accounts she is responsible for turning him from a dutiful but somewhat shallow Catholicism to a deeper evangelicalism. She became a judge, while he plunged headlong into politics.
He got in succession a top job in Durenberger’s 1988 campaign, a spot on the Eagan, Minn., city council, an advisory position with a gubernatorial candidate, and a seat in the state house of representatives. When Republicans took the majority in 1998 — the same year Jesse Ventura won the governorship — he became the majority leader. Four years later, he sought to run for statewide office but found the road blocked. State party leaders favored a wealthy candidate who could fund his own bid for governor. The Bush White House wanted former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman to have a free ride in the Senate primary. Pawlenty decided to seek the executive position, and narrowly prevailed in the primary even after a late start.
As that thumbnail sketch suggests — U.S. News, not National Review; Senator Durenberger — Pawlenty is not a movement conservative. But he was conservative, if not a conservative, to apply William F. Buckley Jr.’s distinction. He ran on liberalizing gun laws, tightening abortion laws, and opposing tax increases, and won a three-way race.
Governor Pawlenty dealt with a Democratic senate for his entire two terms and a Democratic house for his second one. But “dealt with” may not be the best choice of words. Pawlenty set a record for vetoes, partly shutting down the government during a budget battle in 2005. During another budget fight, this one in 2009, Pawlenty withstood pressure from the two previous Republican governors of Minnesota — both well to his left — to agree to raise taxes. He took on the transit workers’ union, which believed that the state should have to provide its members with health insurance for life after 15 years on the job. It went on strike, and lost.
Pawlenty guided Minnesota’s political culture firmly and sharply to the right. From 1960 to 2003, when Pawlenty took over, the state budget grew, on average, by 21 percent every two years. Under Pawlenty that average fell to 4 percent. Some fees rose, and so did cigarette taxes, but Pawlenty managed to resist all income-tax increases. He is one of four governors to get an A on the Cato Institute’s most recent “fiscal-policy report card.” Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is widely lauded in Republican circles as a budget-cutter. But in each year they were both governor, Cato ranked Pawlenty ahead of Daniels.
Larry Jacobs, who studies politics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, comments, “In Minnesota, Pawlenty was always seen as the state’s most charismatic and politically talented politician. Here’s a guy who was a conservative fending off often large Democratic majorities and [he] consistently had over 50 percent approval and dominated public debate. He had a remarkable knack for appealing to people on non-political grounds. . . . Mostly it was the way he talked about public policy and politics. People who fundamentally disagreed with him on public policy found him appealing.”