The Magazine

Tooting the Horn of Pawlenty

Meet the first Sam's Club Republican.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Pawlenty was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Paul Wellstone, who was up for reelection in 2002. Coleman was planning to run for governor once again. But the White House thought Coleman would be a stronger Senate candidate than Pawlenty. Coleman decided to follow advice from Washington and move into the Senate race. Pawlenty started receiving phone calls from national Republicans urging him to step aside for Coleman--again. "For a number of days leading up to that there was a whole series of calls saying, 'Look, nobody knows who you are, you don't have any money,'" Pawlenty says, breaking out into a hiccupy laugh. "'Norm's going to get the endorsement, and you're just chasing the wind.'" Pawlenty didn't know what to do. Then one day a call came from Dick Cheney telling him to move aside. "That was kind of the icing on the cake."

Pawlenty won a contested Republican gubernatorial primary and scraped by in the general election, winning 44 percent of the vote. It was a close election in a Republican year, both nationally and in Minnesota. Coleman won the Senate seat (he ran ahead of Pawlenty, taking 50 percent of the vote), and Republicans increased their majority in the state house.

Pawlenty's first task on assuming office was to confront the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit. The newly elected governor had promised to erase the deficit without raising taxes. He did so. And he kept busy. He signed a law requiring a waiting period for abortions and another allowing permit-holders to carry concealed firearms. He threw out the state's lax education requirements and passed new, tougher standards. He won passage of a drug reimportation bill. He poured resources into alternative energy--one of his favorite subjects and proudest accomplishments. He talks with rare interest about biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol and wind power. "Under my watch we've doubled the proposed requirements for ethanol in gasoline here," he says. "We implemented the first in the nation biodiesel requirement in our diesel fuel, 2 percent soy oil. We're one of the nation's leaders in wind energy production. And it's largely part of some tax credits we put into law on my watch as governor."

The second half of his first term had its disappointments. Democrats gained in statewide elections in 2004 and the state confronted another budget crunch. In 2005 the state was on the edge of a government shutdown. Then it leapt off the edge. "And those were very difficult negotiations," Pawlenty says.

The shutdown lasted eight days. "That was very difficult, very contentious," Pawlenty goes on. "And the decision to do that, stare down, was tough. We ended up getting it resolved, making some compromises. Looking over the abyss into a government shutdown--that was a challenge." Pawlenty vetoed some Democratic tax bills, but agreed to raise the state cigarette tax. This lost him some friends on the right.

Not enough to prevent his reelection, however. Pawlenty is beginning his second term eager to strengthen his education reforms, pour more money into alternative energy subsidies, and try to recover what was lost of his antitax reputation by combating the state Democratic majority's efforts to raise taxes. Meanwhile, Pawlenty must prepare for the 2008 Republican National Convention, which will be held next summer in the Twin Cities. Pawlenty says former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman was instrumental in bringing the convention to Minnesota--the electoral votes of which, along with those of other states in the Upper Midwest like Wisconsin and Michigan, have long been a target of the national GOP. Hosting the Republican convention guarantees Pawlenty a place on the national stage as the presidential race moves into its final months.

If he's not already on the national stage, that is. In Washington, Pawlenty is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee. Earlier this year he took his first step into national politics by endorsing John McCain's candidacy for the Republican nomination for president.

Pawlenty met McCain some 20 years ago. McCain was campaigning in Minnesota and Pawlenty was his driver. He calls McCain "one of the most courageous public leaders the country has seen in modern history." Then he starts gushing. "Now, I don't always agree with him on everything," Pawlenty says. "I know that's the way it is for people who have been in office for a number of years. I just think he is a person of remarkable, extraordinary courage, character, and conviction.

"And if you look at what it takes to move the country forward. . . . You need those traits. You need the ability of somebody who can bring the country together and try to help bridge this polarization. We need from a Republican standpoint someone who can appeal to independents if we're going to win the election, so I think he has a ton of attributes and assets that I think would be very important for the country and for the Republican party.

"And lastly, if you look at the brilliance of Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln, prominent Republican presidents, in addition to courage, character, and conviction, they were willing to take some risks. . . . They weren't status quo people. They were change agents. They were populists--with conservative credentials.

"I think McCain is in that lineage. I think he's clearly in that lineage. Now again, I know he's ruffled the feathers of conservatives on this issue or that issue, but he clearly is in a broad and fair definition of being conservative, in absolute terms--and in relative terms, I would argue he's at least as conservative if not more conservative than the other leading candidates in the party."

Ask Pawlenty about the possibility of a place on the GOP ticket, and he says he isn't thinking about it. Really.

It's 10:25 A.M. at the Bert Raney elementary school in Granite Falls, Minnesota, and Tim Pawlenty is dressed for gym class. He's wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and tennis shoes and is about to play wall ball with a bunch of kids in the second and third grades. Pawlenty just spent a half hour reading to first graders, but you could tell the whole time he couldn't wait for gym. It's easy to see why: Wall ball looks like a fun game. There are four electronic pads with targets attached to the wall at one end of the gym. The kids are split into four teams at the other end. Once the clock starts you have to sprint toward your team's pad, throw your ball, and hope to hit a target. If you hit the target you score points. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins. The targets make a whole bunch of funky electronic noises when hit. Wall ball is an ingenious game, says the gym teacher. The kids are so focused on throwing the ball at the pad, they don't realize they are also doing long sprints. It tires the rugrats out.

The wall ball game highlights two facts about Pawlenty. First, he is athletic. In 2005 he ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 3 hours and 43 minutes--an improvement over the 3 hours and 59 minutes it took him to finish in 2004. Growing up, Pawlenty played hockey. He is still a rabid NHL fan. The first website he visits each morning is, which shows combat highlights from the previous night's games. He plays the ESPN hockey video game in his spare time, often taking on one of his two daughters. This love of competition manifests itself even playing wall ball with second- and third-graders. Pawlenty throws himself into the game, scoring a lot of points but never letting his team get too far ahead of the others.

Second, Pawlenty embodies the concept known as Minnesota Nice. Minnesotans are impeccably polite. They always seem to be smiling. They seem shorn of arrogance. They avoid conflict. How these people elected Jesse Ventura governor is a mystery. Playing wall ball, Pawlenty lets the kids take the lead and congratulates the members of other teams when they hit a hard-to-reach target. Someone jokes that if Ventura were here he would tackle the kids and use the reporters as human javelins with which to pierce the wall pads.

The thing about Minnesota Nice is that it can blind outsiders to the strong convictions that motivate Minnesotans, the politicians in particular. Hubert Humphrey was nice, but he was also remarkably effective. The late Democratic senator Paul Wellstone was nice, but he was also the subject of bipartisan admiration because he refused to betray his ideals. Of course, what such notable political figures from the Upper Midwest have in common is their progressivism. They are all men of the left. The new crop of young, promising politicians from the Upper Midwest, however, tend to be men of the right--men like Pawlenty, Coleman, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

The source of Pawlenty's energy is his frustration at the contemporary GOP. He becomes most passionate when he discusses Sam's Club Republicanism--a theory of politics he's done more than anyone else to put into action. (Pawlenty shops frequently at Wal-Mart, incidentally. He and his brother recently bought storage racks for his basement at Sam's Club, however.) He can go on and on about how conservatives wear these ideological blinders that prevent them from seeing new political realities.

"The country is changing," Pawlenty says. "Socially, demographically, economically, technologically. And that doesn't mean that you throw your principles that you built your party on, your philosophy on, out the window--you just have to make sure they are translated into terms . . . relevant in the political marketplace of today, not to mention tomorrow."

Some examples?

"One of the leading issues in the country is health care," Pawlenty says. "Until recently, Republicans didn't want to touch it because they thought it was, you know, some sort of disguised social service insurgency. And yet, it's a real problem for real people. It's breaking the backs of unions, it's breaking the backs of employees, it's breaking the backs of families, and businesses, and governments. And we were kinda slow in responding to the issue.

"Most people by the way agree that the government shouldn't take over the system. So the Republicans have built-in running room, or built-in advantage, or built-in momentum here--if we could articulate a viable, affordable, forward-looking private-sector alternative that actually helps people. So (a) we were slow to the draw and (b) I think we pooched the details.

"For example. Prescription drug issue. Now this is just one slice of a multislice big pie, but it's meant to be demonstrative. One of the driving forces in health care costs is prescription drug costs. Before Medicare Part D there was a debate in places like Minnesota about should we allow granny, grandma and grandpa, to go get prescription drugs from Canada. And there were two primary objections--from conservatives!--on this. One was: It's not safe. First of all, as it relates to established, credible, reputable Canadian pharmacies, there is no safety issue, it's complete bunk. . . . Show me the dead Canadians. Where are the Canadians dying en masse from this unsafe Canadian pharmacy infrastructure?

"And the answer is there are no dead Canadians. Now there are some pirates on the Internet that pretend to be Canadian pharmacies, but if you do even nominal inspections you can find licensed, credible, reputable Canadian pharmacies who then could provide much more affordable prescription drugs in many instances to people who needed some help. Republicans were substantially against that--number one, on safety, which was complete bunk, and then the other argument was, Wait a minute, as conservatives you can't be buying prescription drugs from Canada because they have government-negotiated prices for prescription drugs in Canada and it's interference with the marketplace. Interesting. You know?

"We're going to get righteous--as conservatives, everyone goes around talking about we're for free and fair trade. Free and fair trade. So it's okay from a conservative perspective to outsource great segments of our entire economy to Communist China, but we can't let granny and grandpa go buy drugs from Canada. Now that's an example of, I think, unclear thinking that, first of all, doesn't violate conservative principles if you look at it apples to apples compared with what conservatives embrace around the rest of the globe for other products. And two, that's a populist message. You know?

"We have people who are uninsured, they can't afford to eat, they don't have prescription drugs--

"What are you doing to fix it?"

A little something new . . . Few people would deny that Tim Pawlenty is a man of the right. The problem is that it's becoming harder and harder to determine who or what is a "man of the right." The top three Republican presidential candidates--Giuliani, McCain, and Romney--all disagree with aspects of the movement-conservative agenda. Outside the South, successful Republican politicians have felt the need to move left in order to remain competitive. For all but diehard activists, the borders of conservatism are in flux. It's reasonable to assume that someday soon, after a haphazard and acrimonious process, those borders will be worked out. The question is just how much of what we think of as "conservatism" will be left.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.