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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Pawlenty’s Suspended Disbelief

March 04, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Whenever I hear former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty say things like, “Government is too damn big,” I grind my teeth. I’m surprised that my dentist hasn’t told me to stop listening. But, I was just in for a check-up and he, my dentist, only mumbled that my teeth were never going to make him any money, so Pawlenty hasn’t done me any real damage. Yet.

Even though Pawlenty has passed from our Minnesota coil, his policy framework and its detail are omnipresent. So I think its fair game to consider just exactly what Pawlenty means when he declares at a Tea Party convention, “Government is too damn big.”

Bluntly, I believe that Pawlenty means that our collective public investments in ourselves—schools, roads, healthcare, economic development—are accruing to us, the investors, when they should be accruing to Minnesota’s highest income earners. Equally bluntly, I’m sure that Pawlenty, at some level, really believes what he’s saying when he hoots, “Government is too damn big,” but experience teaches me that Pawlenty is much more calculating in his declarations. And, that’s Pawlenty’s political problem; his calculation is just a little too close to the surface. It puts people off.

This isn’t a column about Tim Pawlenty’s politics or his political ambitions so I’m not going to deconstruct the Pawlenty for President political operation. I will, however, point out that Tim Pawlenty has enormously benefitted from considerable community investments, including direct public investments in Tim Pawlenty.

As a South St Paul High School, a University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts and University of Minnesota School of Law graduate, Minnesota invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Tim Pawlenty. I expect that Pawlenty’s home is protected by an FHA-backed mortgage. His first $250,000 in bank savings is protected by FDIC guarantees. If, driving between the airport and his Eagan home, returning from one of his many speaking engagement, Pawlenty has an auto accident, he counts on a prompt, professional public safety services response. I don’t know that Pawlenty has a lot of time these days for public library patronage but every John Grisham novel that Pawlenty or his family checks out is a public investment in him and his family.

Presumably, Pawlenty’s “Government is too damn big” exhortation doesn’t include the government-delivered services that he enjoys. He’s never suggested that we eliminate airport security or let jets zip around the airways without air traffic controllers protecting us. Or, more specifically, protect him since he flies a lot.

Pawlenty’s Tea Party convention appearance reflects the dichotomy—two non-intersecting choices—that he, like every presidential aspirant must embrace. His policy solutions overwhelmingly advantage the highest income earners at the expense of pretty much everyone else. On the other hand, lots of folks, frustrated with disappearing jobs, community services and opportunity, are angry. Anger represents political opportunity even if that anger is created by conservative policy consequences.

Candidate Pawlenty walks a fine line, advocating one thing while saying another. It could blow up in his face but probably not. History suggests that populist outrage and frustration tends to ebb away as circumstances change. Real revolutions are few and far between.

We can believe that government is too damn big in the same way that we enjoy blockbuster summer movie spectaculars. The first order of business, watching “Die Hard,” “Star Wars,” or “Inception,” is suspending disbelief. As a viewer, you have to disconnect the part of your brain that ruins the story-telling experience by stubbornly insisting that the situation is impossible. If you can do that, film is lot more fun.

Pawlenty’s “Government is too damn big” declaration piggy-backs off of New York City mayoral candidate Jimmy McMillan’s single-issue candidacy that “the rent is too damn high.” The two sentiments couldn’t be further apart. McMillan quirkily expressed populist frustration—the rent is too damn high—but he proposed expanding government rent controls.

When you hear Tim Pawlenty shout, “Government is too damn big,” understand that he doesn’t expect anyone to think too deeply about what he means. He’s trying to create a sound bite that captures McMillan’s weird, vaguely Tea Party-style independence but sands off all the edges and all the meaning. Along the way though, rather than becoming a voice for misguided, frustrated working people, he reinforces his reputation for calculation and political advantage. Like a comic shifting between Jerry Seinfeld’s observational humor and Rodney Dangerfield’s one-liners, he can’t quite decide who he is even as he gamely pushes forward. It leaves the audience confused.

But, that’s Pawlenty’s problem; not mine. My problem is a conservative, no-new-taxes policy that puts public money in high income earners’ pockets while emptying everyone else’s. That strategy carries a high price, risking Minnesota prosperity. The progressive solution invests public resources in schools, affordable healthcare, roads and job-creating economic development. It’s not entertaining but it works.

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