In a visit to National Review’s offices, Tim Pawlenty displayed his famous “Minnesota nice” — except when it came to Fox News pundit Dick Morris; his Republican predecessor as governor, Arne Carlson; and, of course, President Obama.
Pawlenty rejected Morris’s charge that he is soft on sharia and dismissed his journalistic methods; scoffed at Carlson’s criticism of his record; and while avoiding the Newt Gingrich formulation that President Obama is a “secular socialist,” hit the president in every other way.
Pawlenty steadfastly refused to take on any of his GOP rivals. “I am not going to be the one who is criticizing in a negative way,” he says. “I am not going to be the first one to throw the elbow. But I am an old hockey player. If the elbows get thrown, we will throw them.”
Pawlenty understands the basic process of journalism well. If he makes the slightest criticism of his fellow contenders, he knows that “the first thing you will write is ‘Pawlenty bashes Romney,’ and we’ll get into a process story.”
Pawlenty aims to stay above the fray, at least for the moment. “A good chunk of the media,” he sighs, “just wants to talk about the almighty polls, or what Sarah Palin’s bus tour means, or whether Donald Trump’s hair is colored.”
But when it comes to Dick Morris, Pawlenty is willing to take off the gloves. Morris has repeatedly criticized Pawlenty for his state’s Emerging Markets Homeownership Initiative, which encouraged firms to substitute fees for interest in their loans — a practice compliant with sharia law.
“I was the one who ordered the program to be shut down,” Pawlenty argues. “Maybe we didn’t act as fast as we could have, but as soon as we knew about it, we shut it down.”
Pawlenty calls Morris “reckless” for saying he is a “lover of sharia law and wants to promote sharia law, blah, blah, blah.” Morris, he continues, “probably has some other agenda,” and it is “offensive” and “absolutely crazy” to make such accusations.
“He writes this book Revolt, which he perpetually promotes,” Pawlenty says. “So we called him two days before the deadline and told him the real story.” He wonders if the call made any difference to the former Clinton adviser. “He never did call us. He knew these facts before he published it.”
Pawlenty doesn’t feel any warmer toward his predecessor. Asked about the criticisms of Arne Carlson, a former GOP Minnesota governor who has blamed Pawlenty for the state’s current fiscal situation (anticipated deficit: $5.1 billion), Pawlenty immediately argues that Carlson is no Republican.
“Arne Carlson left the Republican party some years ago. He openly and notoriously supported both John Kerry and Barack Obama,” Pawlenty points out, adding that Carlson’s criticisms are not “factually accurate.”
Pawlenty defends his record, saying that all his two-year budgets were balanced, as Minnesota law requires. “The last one in that series ends this summer, and it’s ending in the black. That’s before any tinkering with the current legislature or the new governor,” he says.
Instead, Pawlenty blames the projected deficit on spending increases, which are anticipated to be 20 to 27 percent. “I would never have tolerated that,” he says. “Nor should that even be part of the projection in the budget forecast. If they have an increase of a more reasonable nature, there’s no deficit at all.”
Pawlenty rejects Carlson’s charge that he is responsible for Minnesota’s property-tax hikes, noting that while he slashed the money that the state provides to local governments, it was they who chose to raise property taxes in response. Instead, they could have cut the number of public employees or reformed public-employee compensation.
Finally, he observes that Minnesota is far from the only state facing projected deficits right now. “Forty-eight of the 50 states have projected budget deficits,” he remarks.
Pawlenty, who hasn’t read Obama’s Dreams from My Father (“I prefer to read non-fiction,” he quips) refused to call Obama a socialist when asked about Gingrich’s characterization of the president. “He’s in my view, misguided, naïve, he lacks courage, he lacks vision, and he’s taken the country in a dangerous direction,” Pawlenty says. “And he’s got government-centric approaches to everything. I don’t think we need to get into the labels beyond that.”
Pawlenty adds that “name calling’s unhelpful.” And throughout the rest of the interview, true to his word, he keeps his elbows to himself.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter, Rich Lowry is editor, and Katrina Trinko is a staff reporter at National Review.