The most important speech at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, held in early March at a Washington hotel, didn't come from any of the Republicans running for president. It came from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the few Republican success stories in 2006--he was reelected with 47 percent of the vote--and a rising star in a party that's been knocked back on its heels.
Pawlenty spoke in the middle of the afternoon on the last day of the three-day event, hours before former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would address a standing-room-only crowd. The audience that listened to Pawlenty's panel was modest in size, listless, and easily distracted. The subject was how the GOP can win back the votes of suburban and exurban voters. When Pawlenty said, "I support school choice," the crowd applauded wanly. Then it was silent. Conservative boilerplate wasn't going to rouse it from its stupor.
And Pawlenty said, "But that ain't enough."
A few kids in blue blazers raised an eyebrow.
And Pawlenty said, "I want to push you a little bit. Indulge me."
Two older conservatives exchanged looks.
And before you knew it Pawlenty took off, arguing for reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada and Mexico, for increased government subsidies for alternative energy, for more health insurance coverage, and for using government to cater to the needs of down-scale voters. At times the crowd was confused; at other times it seemed annoyed. Here was this tall, bird-like young man--Pawlenty is 46--taking on standard conservative public policy prescriptions and saying they were lacking. He was saying they weren't enough to return the GOP to majority status. Besides, the issues on which Pawlenty focused--education, health care, energy--sounded a little . . . Democratic, especially at a wingnut gathering such as this.
A funny thing happened, however. Once he had his audience, Pawlenty never lost them. In fact, he won some of them over. Towards the end of the talk, when Pawlenty said the United States was "funding both sides of the war on terror. We're funding our side, and we're funding their side by buying oil," he got a standing ovation. After the speech Pawlenty mingled in a hallway outside the hotel ballroom. The reaction was positive. People kept coming up to him, shaking his hand.
"These trainers always come in and say, 'Hey, if you want to win over a crowd, just tell them what they want to hear. Don't try to convince them or persuade them. What they really want is to be affirmed. And you'll be--in their minds--you'll be more well liked if you just tell them what they want to hear,'" Pawlenty said later. "I don't enjoy that because you become kind of a . . . mercenary. So I tried to--and I enjoy trying to--at least appropriately and gently and constructively try to get people to think a little bit. And so I don't want to go, you know, in your face, but at least be . . . constructively provocative, and maybe get some of them to have a light go on and say, 'Well, maybe that's worth thinking about.'
"Otherwise you just come in and do the Milton Friedman playbook and the other social and economic side of it--I can do that, I believe in that stuff strongly--but they've been hearing that for four days and, you know, I also look to put a little something new on it."
A little something new. . . . It was back in 2002 that Pawlenty first said the GOP needed "to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." Back then his embrace of his state and regional populist tradition was a curiosity, a political epiphenomenon lost in a national sea of regnant Bush Republicanism. Today Bush Republicanism is on its way out. The most successful GOP governors--Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Rick Perry in Texas, Charlie Crist in Florida, and former governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts--like their conservatism à la carte. They emphasize certain conservative policies--low taxes most of all--but dismiss others. Meanwhile, in Washington policy circles, wonks and flacks are busy sketching out an alternative Republican agenda that combines social conservatism with an active government tailoring economic policies to help working families. Pawlenty's slogan--"The party of Sam's Club"--is the working title on a forthcoming book from Doubleday by WEEKLY STANDARD contributors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam.
Behind all this new thinking lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.
Nowhere is the Democratic advantage more clear than with voters 18 to 29 years old. Voting patterns among this cohort shape the political environment for years to come. In the 1984 presidential election, 18- to 29-year-olds voted 40 percent Democratic and 59 percent Republican. In the 1986 congressional election, 18- to 29-year-olds were pretty much split down the middle, voting 51 percent Democratic and 49 percent Republican. One could argue such voting patterns helped set the stage for conservative governance.
After more than a decade of mirroring general electoral trends, however, the youth vote has veered left. In 2004, 18- to 29-year-olds went Democratic 54 percent to 45 percent. In the 2006 congressional elections, these voters went Democratic 60 percent to 38 percent, making them one of the most Democratic groups in the country--voting for the donkey at about the same levels as union members. If this youthful cohort continues to vote in similar ways as it grows older, the GOP is in serious trouble.
It is out of such a climate that politicians like Tim Pawlenty emerge.
At first the South St. Paul native wanted to be a dentist. He would be walking down the street and see the local teeth-cleaner--Dr. Vogel--driving his Buick Riviera, parking it in a reserved spot, and would think, Wow! This is awesome. To practice dentistry--to make money as a professional--was to enhance one's status. It was also a way to transcend difficult circumstances. Pawlenty's mother died when he was 16. His father was a truck driver who lost his job not long after her passing. Pawlenty was his family's first college graduate. He went to the University of Minnesota.
"I went to college pre-dentistry and got into organic and inorganic chemistry," he says. "And back then you had to get pretty close to a straight-A average to get into dental school, and I think I got a B- or something in either organic or inorganic chemistry, and I was discouraged and going through--you know--pretty much soul-searching as a 19- or 20-year-old kid, and I went to see a career counselor at the U--who happened to be some graduate student who I'm sure they gave a stipend to be a career counselor in their free time--and it was, you know, this zen-like thing in his office, and he said, 'What do you love to do, you know? What's your passion? What do you like to do, what books do you read on vacation?'
" . . . Long story short, I just told him I like current events, I like history, public policy. And he said, 'Well, go into something you love and do well, and whatever you love is what you'll do well in.' So that propelled me to go start taking some political science classes."
Pawlenty worked with the College Republicans and switched his major to political science. It wasn't long before he realized he probably wouldn't be able to find a job with a bachelor's in poli-sci: Holy cow, I'm going to be unemployed! I'm going to be selling hot dogs on a street corner over here if I don't get a graduate degree. So he went to law school--"Not because I had some innate love of the law. . . . I wanted to get a degree and wanted to get a job." He interned with a local state senator, practiced law, and was elected to the state house in 1992.
It's impossible to review Pawlenty's career in politics without mentioning Republican Norm Coleman, now the senior senator from Minnesota. Time after time Coleman's political decisions directly affected Pawlenty's electoral fortunes. "Norm Coleman is a very gifted senator and wonderful senator and a friend, he was a pretty well-known Minnesota political figure because he had been [the Democratic] mayor of St. Paul, dynamic, well-connected, well-financed," Pawlenty says. It all started when Pawlenty wanted to run for governor in 1998 but the decks were cleared for Mayor Coleman, who had switched parties and had an institutional advantage. Pawlenty deferred to Coleman, who went on to lose to Reform party candidate Jesse "The Body/The Mind" Ventura in a close race.
In 1999 Pawlenty was elected majority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives. The Republicans had a one-vote majority, the Democrats held the senate, and Ventura was governor. Pawlenty was young and untested. "His colleagues saw something in him," says Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson, one of the Powerline bloggers. "Tim held that majority together, which is so hard to do."
Johnson recalls meeting Pawlenty in 2000, at a lunch with some Republican lawyer friends. "I couldn't believe what a talented guy he was," Johnson says. "There's nobody he can't talk to. He's impossible to dislike. And that's such a rare commodity on the Republican side."
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 hockeyfights.com, 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."
"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.