Departing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty kicks off his book tour by chatting with NRO’s Jim Geraghty.
National Review Online: So, this is a book tour, not a pre-presidential-campaign tour…that’s your story and you’re sticking to it?
Tim Pawlenty: (laughs) Well, it is principally about promoting the book, so that’s what we’re doing and the schedule reflects that. But obviously we’re doing some political things along the way. And as for running for president, I’m not cute about it — I tell people I’m considering it and haven’t made a final decision yet.
NRO: Do you have a timeline for your decision?
PAWLENTY: We’ll probably make an announcement sometime toward the end of the first quarter or the early part of the second quarter of this year, 2011.
NRO: I’m reading the book, and enjoying the human side that comes through — the dog attacking you when you were walking precincts, the meeting where you wondered if Jesse Ventura was going to punch you, anecdotes like that. As I read this, I thought, “He seems like a really normal human being. So why on earth would he ever want to run for president?”
PAWLENTY: (laughs) One of the things I can bring to the table, whether it’s running for president or public service more broadly, is that I have this blue-collar background. I grew up in a meat-packing town, my dad was a truck driver for much of his life, and my mom was a homemaker. It’s a lunch-bucket Reagan Democrat kind of place. People got their hands dirty, they worked hard, they broke a sweat during the day in most of their jobs. When people talk about Republicans all being wealthy, or former CEOs, or trust-fund kids, all going to Harvard and Yale, and they say, “You can’t relate to me and my worries about whether I can afford to put gas in my car, or pay for health insurance, or afford college for my kids,” I can say, “Yeah, I can, I lived exactly that life. I’ve walked in your shoes.” That gives you a little bit of an opening to connect more with people who aren’t yet conservatives or aren’t yet Republicans who we want to get on our team.
NRO: Presuming you ran, you would be taking on some big names with national fundraising networks, personal wealth, etc. How does a lesser-known candidate make up that difference? Is that something you’re thinking about now?
PAWLENTY: Anybody who’s a serious candidate for president of the United States is going to have 100 percent name ID as you get to the caucus stages and beyond. So that takes care of itself over time if you can get some traction. History is replete with examples of people who weren’t well known and became well known as the campaign unfolded. You have to get traction and you have to show improvement in support levels. For us, a year ago or so, if you took a poll of Republicans nationally, I think about 15 percent of the people knew who I was and now it’s about 40. More than doubled it in a year, and I think that’s reasonable progress. I don’t have a billion dollars, I’m not a celebrity, but I do have a record of getting things done. In the end, you’re going to have six or seven people up on the stage in a debate, and there’s going to be some differences in policy, but basically they’ll be saying about the same thing on pro-growth economic policy, health care, education reform, terrorism, national security, and the like.
So the question isn’t going to be some huge divergence of policy positions. I think the question is going to be, “As you look at these as individuals, do their life stories and times in previous office demonstrate the fortitude to do the hard work that’s got to be done to turn this country around? Do they actually have results?” I put my record against any of them.
NRO: I’m sure that if you run, you’ll unveil a lot of policy proposals, but eventually every candidate gets boiled down to two or three really big ideas or proposals or themes that define them. If you run, do you have a sense yet of what your main campaign themes would be?
PAWLENTY: One main issue is going to be government spending and the out-of-control growth of government. There are hundreds if not thousands of individuals who can get up and talk about that issue. But I’m in one of the most liberal places in the country and I’ve taken a spending curve in government that was 21 percent every two years for many years, and gotten it down to one percent per year on average over my time as governor. One of the challenges is, who can wrestle government spending to the ground? I’ve done it, and not in an easy place, but in one of the most liberal places in country.
There are other aspects of my record that are similar. I don’t think there are going to be huge differences on policy. But more profoundly, the country’s in huge trouble. It’s going to face epic historic challenges and it’s going to take an epic amount of fortitude and courage to take the country to this next chapter. And look at these folks and say, “Does their life story really give you comfort and evidence that they’ve got that kind of fortitude in their personal life and in their public service career?”
NRO: On the budget, are you 100 percent with the Paul Ryan Roadmap, some lesser percentage, or —
PAWLENTY: I haven’t taken a position on all the details of it, but I think directionally it’s a good guide. Anybody who tells you we can tackle the spending issue and get it under control without reforming entitlements is either ill-informed or lying. You just can’t do it. So you’re going to have to look the American people in the eye and tell them the truth about the need to reform and restructure entitlements. I respect and appreciate what Paul has done, I agree with much of what I’ve read, but I haven’t gone through all of it.
More broadly I’ll have a series of thoughts that I’ll be sharing in the next week in a number of speeches on how do you really deal with these issues, not just talking about reforming entitlements, but doing it. All of these ideas are not new. They’ve all been think-tanked, they’ve all been white-papered, they’ve all been seminar-ed to death. There’s no question about what needs to be done. The only question is do we have the fortitude to actually do it? All of the options on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, they’ve been lying around for 30 years, 20 years. It’s not a question of “What are our choices?” It’s “Do you have the fortitude to actually do it?”
NRO: Should congressional Republicans raise the debt ceiling?
Pawlenty: I’m not for more debt, and if there’s any way to avoid that, they should not raise the ceiling. We have to get spending under control, but we also have to make sure they don’t wound the economy in the process. You’ve got a bunch of people holding our debt and the signal that it sends if you can’t actually back it up…I think it’s fine to say that we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling, but you had better make sure you can live on that amount of money. If they can, they should. I think they should exhaust the possibility of cuts before raising the debt ceiling again.
NRO: What accomplishments or ideas did you enact as governor that would be tranferrable to the federal level?
Pawlenty: There are only four governors who got an ‘A’ from the Cato Institute on financial management: [Louisiana’s] Bobby Jindal, [South Carolina’s] Mark Sanford, [West Virginia’s] Joe Manchin, and myself. They’re tough graders. On reducing spending, I told you earlier, it increased about 21 percent every two years for about 40 years, and we got it down to one percent a year during my terms. That’s an epic, historic change in a liberal place.
Second, we reduced taxes net during my time in office. Third, we were the first state in the nation to offer performance-based pay for teachers statewide, and now it’s all the rage in education reform. We were just rated the number one state in the country by the National Association of Public Charter Schools for having the best charter-school laws, in part because of some changes we made just a year and a half ago. Fourth, we’re recognized as having some of the most innovative, market-oriented health-care reforms in the country.
On public-employee pensions and benefits, everyone’s running around saying that’s the issue of the future. We’ve already partially addressed that through the pension reduction. We’re going to be the test case before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether you can reduce pension benefits for current beneficiaries. If the answer to that question is yes, that opens the door to national reform. If the answer to that question is no, you’re going to have some places including California, Illinois, and New York in impossible positions, mathematically impossible positions.
Finally, on foreign policy, I’ve been to Iraq five times, Afghanistan three times. For a governor, I’ve had an unusual amount of exposure to international issues and national-security issues.
NRO: You have a Democrat successor, who won narrowly. Are you worried about all the changes you made being undone in future years?
PAWLENTY: He’s boxed in. He has the opposite of what I had; I never had a Republican legislature. Everything I did was through epic showdowns with Democrat-controlled or partially-Democrat-controlled legislatures. It’s a Republican legislature, both House and Senate, for the first time since they’ve had party designations in the legislature. He’s boxed in; he’s not going to be able to do anything he said he was, with a few minor exceptions.
NRO: A very current-event-oriented question: They’re about to begin reading the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives, and Democrats are objecting. I think my favorite line is that apparently Jay Inslee of Washington said, “We have not had time to review the document before us.”
PAWLENTY: Are you kidding me?
NRO: (reading) “We have not been able to review the language we will be reading today.” (laughter)
PAWLENTY: I applaud the initiative of reading the Constitution on the floor of the Congress. I think they should do that regularly. Anything we can do to call more attention to the Constitution, the founding documents, the Founders’ intent, I stand up and cheer all that.
NRO: A lighthearted final question, I think. I assume you’ve seen the presumably over-hyped speculative reports: Michele Bachmann for President. Your thoughts?
PAWLENTY: I like Michele and respect her. I’ve had a cordial relationship with her over the years. I don’t know if she’s going to run. It’s a free country, but I just don’t know what she’ll do. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
NRO: Is the Republican presidential field big enough for two Minnesotans?
PAWLENTY: (laughing) It’s going to be a big field no matter what, so I don’t think one more person is going to make or break it.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.