The Saint Paul Pioneer Press‘ Bill Salisbury wrote a valedictory yesterday in the Pioneer Press about the career of outgoing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
So far, anyway.
He left it to Pawlenty to sum up the crux of his legacy:
“This is a state that was on a spending binge for a long time with a liberal-leaning political culture that goes back decades or generations, and to try to change the direction of the state was a big undertaking. But I think we did that,” Pawlenty said during an extended interview Tuesday with a group of Capitol reporters.
Making that change was not easy, the Republican governor said. He had to call a predominantly Democratic Legislature into special sessions, issue a record number of vetoes in one year and use a government shutdown to force the changes.
“This will be known as the time Minnesota finally came to terms with its excesses and got itself on a more sustainable and responsible path,” he said.
That legacy, he asserted, is more significant than any new program or building he might have created.
Pawlenty’s right – and in ways the article isn’t scoped to explore, in and of itself.
Not only did Pawlenty’s years start the process of breaking the state of the culture of “the people exist to keep the government fed” school of government, but he set the stage for this years’ GOP sweep (Republicans flipped control of both chambers of the Minnesota legislature, controlling the body for the first time in recent history) in ways that I don’t think he’ll get credit for – even among conservatives.
Maybe especially among conservatives.
Until 1998, the Minnesota GOP was a “moderate”, even “progressive” party. James Lileks once joked on the radio, around the time he lived in or came back from DC, that he’d tell his friends in Washington “Minnesota is the place where you have your pro-abortion, pro-gun-control candidate – and the Democrat!”.
Former MN governor Arne Carlson (who served from 1990-1998) was a typical pre-Pawlenty Republican. In many respects, he was a bigger “liberal” than the DFLer he replaced, Rudy Perpich, and he was hardly alone. The GOP during the “Independent Republican” era – the years after Watergate, when the MNGOP rechristened itself the “Independent Republican” party, to break with the national GOP – was a throwback to the national GOP of the Eisenhower years, which was vastly more “communitarian” than libertarian or fiscally conservative.
And there are plenty who wanted, and still want, the GOP to remain that party – basically DFLers with better suits; a party that believed “Fiscal Responsibility” meant making sure you tax enough to run government…
…but that keeping government fed and fat and happy came first and foremost among government’s missions.
And, predictably, there are many in the Minnesota’s GOP who pine for the old days:
But a lot of Pawlenty’s financial savings were “smoke and mirrors” instead of permanent cost reductions, said John Gunyou, finance commissioner under former Gov. Arne Carlson’s and a DFL candidate for lieutenant governor this year. Pawlenty relied heavily on delaying payments, raiding funds set aside for other purposes, unilateral spending cuts that the state Supreme Court ruled overstepped his authority and federal stimulus funds.
“He didn’t really bring costs under control,” Gunyou said.
Unmentioned by Gunyou – or any of the other outdated impedimenta, “GOP” or DFL, that keep repeating that particular chanting point – is that Pawlenty was hamstrung throughout his eight years, for four years by a DFL-controlled Senate and a GOP majority in the House that was addled by too many old-school, “IR”-era Republicans to do much more than hold the line on spending – which he did! – and for the last half of his administration by facing a rapacious, money-crazed DFL majority in both chambers of the legislature. Against such grossly, irresponsibly, blindly spenthrift ideologues as Larry Pogemiller, Margaret Kelliher, Sandy Pappas and the rest of the Twin Cities metro-area DFL clacque that ran the Legislature, the only way to meet his statutory responsibility to balance the budget and keep his “no new taxes” pledge was to defer that which he couldn’t cut.
Pawlenty will leave his successor, Democrat Mark Dayton, with a projected $6.2 billion budget deficit.
Well, no – the Legislature did, and the 6.2 billion number is a made-up figure with no legal meaning, but the DFL and media (pardon the redundancy) don’t want you to know that.
But I digress.
Salisbury turned to talk of Pawlenty’s legacy. In discussing the big takeaways from Pawlenty’s eight years, a group of assembled poli-sci wonks phumphered that Pawlenty didn’t leave much in the way of “big achievements”: the inevitable quote from U of Minnesota poli-sci professor Larry Jacobs was “Huge promise, remarkable intelligence and understanding of the issues but uneven or limp follow-through”. Salisbury points out that Pawlenty “…was excellent at diagnosing problems and generating ideas, such has providing health care for all kids or funding transportation projects after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. But he dropped many of his creative ideas, often because they would have cost more tax dollars, which his conservative base opposed”
The observation is partly right. The part they miss; conservatives were never “his” “base”, where “base” means “people who ideologically support him through thick and thin”. Pawlenty came into the governor’s race as the moderate. He had to earn every conservative vote he got, starting at the 2002 GOP convention, where he held off a charge by conservative businessman Brian Sullivan after 17 ballots, largely by adopting the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota’s “No New Taxes” pledge – pledging to balance the budget by controlling spending rather than hiking taxes. In many ways, Pawlenty never entirely won conservatives over; he still hasn’t entirely won “conservatives” over, although I believe that, being as perfect is the enemy of good enough, he should have. I believe Minnesota’s conservatives shorted Pawlenty.
Poli-sci prof Steven Schier from Carlton College provides the key caveat that the U of M’s Jacobs didn’t, pointing out that Pawlenty “never had a fully cooperative Legislature”. That’s putting it lightly. When the DFL took complete control of the Legislature in 2006, DFL Senator Cy Thao famously remarked “When you people [Republicans] win, you get to keep your money; when we win, we take your money!”. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said in 2008 “it’s silly to think that people can spend their money better than government can”.
So when Salisbury quotes Jacobs…:
A governor must build coalitions to get things done, Jacobs said, but Pawlenty had a hard time finding “honorable compromise” with DFL legislators.
…one can forgive him for not adding “because the DFL had no interest in compromise, and were largely not honorable”.
But I will.
My real point is that Pawlenty’s legacy goes waaaay beyond simple, material things like programs and departments and government real estate. Tim Pawlenty did something that’s needed doing since long before I came to Minnesota. Because for all of my hard-core paleocon friends’ grousing about “impact fees” and “travelling with Will Steger”, it’s a simple fact that Pawlenty’s political leadership helped drive the Minnesota GOP to the right; it helped the GOP provide a real policy alternative to the DFL for the first time in recent memory.
Pawlenty was the first important political figure in recent Minnesota political history to define “fiscal responsibility” as “controlling spending” rather than “making sure we make the people cover all of government’s bills on time!”.
I think there’s a pretty airtight case that Tim Pawlenty is the most vital, transformative figure in Minnesota politics since Hubert H. Humphrey.
The leadership of the Tea Party, and of Minnesota’s newly-empowered conservative legislative majority, might quibble with the statement, but in every way that mattered, Tim Pawlenty paved the way for everything the Tea Party and the new conservative majority stands for.
And because of this – because Minnesota now has, for the first time in recent political memory, a genuine two-party system, with two sides that are actively holding each others’ feet in the political fire, and a genuine conservative opposition to Minnesota’s generations-long tradition of spend first, think later – Tim Pawlenty has left this state a vastly better place than he took over.
Economies rise and fall. Budgets work themselves out (and, with a new GOP majority that owes more than it admits to Pawlenty’s legacy now in charge, they’ll likely work themselves out a whole lot better than they would have). But changing a state’s political system, vastly for the better? That’s a wonderful thing.
I think Tim Pawlenty is getting grossly short shrift from conservatives in his all-but-certain bid for the presidency. His record as a solid, commonsense fiscal conservative (on all the things that truly matter in the long view) deserves a serious look on the national stage.
Because while you can quibble about the details around and about the edges of his record, Tim Pawlenty’s real legacy is that of eight years of true political grit. Pawlenty was doing the Tea Party’s work before there was a Tea Party.
And Minnesota needed that. We needed it bad.
Pawlenty is leaving this state in good hands – at least, two chambers dominated by those good hands. That new majority, in all their enthusiastic numbers, has two big shoes to fill.
Thanks, Governor Pawlenty. I hope to write about you a lot more in the next two years.