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The Tragedy of Tim Pawlenty

He did everything right. And that was the problem.

At almost precisely the minute that Michele Bachmann was declaring her presidential candidacy in Iowa at the end of June, I was interviewing Tim Pawlenty in a borrowed conference room in a midtown Manhattan financial firm. For much of our interview, the long-faced, dark-haired-flecked-with-gray, 50-year-old Pawlenty sat tall in his chair, rarely fidgeting, his hand gestures confined to occasionally pointing for emphasis. Though he maintained steady eye contact, many of his answers were campaign boilerplate, and his mind sometimes seemed miles away. But, midway through the interview, desperate for a headline-making morsel about his home-state rival, I asked Pawlenty to respond to the assessment that he was the establishment and Bachmann was the outsider in Minnesota politics. To my surprise, Pawlenty sprang to life. He spent the next four minutes vehemently disputing my premise. “If you look at Minnesota, I don’t think you can define anything I did there as establishment,” he said, methodically ticking off his eight-year record as the militantly anti-tax governor of a state dominated by “a multigenerational, Humphrey-esque, liberal culture.” At times, a thin veneer of anger crept into his voice, even though all he would say about Bachmann, the original flashpoint of the question, was this: “She’s really an outsider, of course. I don’t think there’s much dispute about that.”

If Pawlenty was deeply annoyed to have to talk about Bachmann, a back-bencher in the state Senate when he was elected governor in 2002, who could really blame him? “Pawlenty has always been the establishment in Minnesota and Bachmann has always been the renegade,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “Pawlenty thought that she was kind of a crackpot. He would roll his eyes when her name came up.” Democrat Roger Moe—the former longtime majority leader of the state Senate who lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to Pawlenty—describes his rival as “the kind of guy you can have a beer with” despite their political differences. But Moe cannot resist chuckling: “I can just tell you—I know for sure on the inside of him—that Tim Pawlenty is just seething over Bachmann. I bet they have to lock him in a room some days when he reads about her.”

If presidential politics were a rational enterprise governed by flow charts and PowerPoints, then Pawlenty—a competent, conservative former governor—would be in serious contention right now, perhaps a few strides off the pace as the GOP race heads into its first turn. But, instead, less than a month before the August 13 Iowa Straw Poll, Pawlenty finds himself struggling to gain his footing. Poll numbers mired in the single digits, a soporific debate performance in New Hampshire, anemic fund-raising—all have contributed to a media verdict that Pawlenty is nearly finished before he has really begun.

This storyline has clearly been over-hyped: With a weak GOP field, it is a mistake to write off Pawlenty more than six months before the Iowa caucuses. Yet it is also undeniable that the former Minnesota governor is in serious trouble. After a month on the Pawlenty beat—during which I spent time on the road with him in New Hampshire, toured his blue-collar hometown of South St. Paul, and delved into his Minnesota record—I came to appreciate the tragedy of his situation. “He’s always had it figured out,” says former senior gubernatorial aide Tom Hanson. But suddenly nothing makes sense for Pawlenty. He is a guy who lifted himself out of his working-class roots, partly putting himself through college by bagging groceries. Along the way, he never left anything to chance, micromanaging every aspect of his career, sometimes exasperating those close to him with his obsession for detail. But now, rather than solidifying his position as the credible right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney, he finds himself distracted by thunder on his own right in the form of Bachmann. Why is it that Tim Pawlenty—for whom everything appeared perfect in theory—cannot seem to break through?

ON A DRIZZLY Saturday night in June, Pawlenty, dressed in a crinkled work shirt and jeans, was about to make his sales pitch in perhaps the most traditional setting in presidential politics—a New Hampshire house party in North Conway nestled in the White Mountains. The 100 or so Republicans, many of them affluent retirees, who crammed into Ray Shakir’s living room were curious but skeptical as they waited for the candidate to begin. “I’ve seen Pawlenty on TV and I like him,” said Janice Patrignani, an unabashed birther. “I just wish he were a little more animated.”

Pawlenty’s 13-minute stump speech appeared to reinforce the notion that he is as exciting as ice fishing. Speaking a beat too fast—as if he had to rev up to go from a Coen brothers’ movie to the East Coast—Pawlenty earned little more than respectful silence as he declared, “I’ve got the experience, the skills, the ability, and the record to get this country back on track and to restore the country that we love.” Try-too-hard lines—“We need to recapture the magic that is the can-do, positive, hopeful, optimistic, let’s-get-this-thing-going spirit that’s found in our people”—fell flat.

The entire scene seemed like a perfect encapsulation of why Pawlenty’s campaign is floundering—until he started talking about his childhood in response to a question about whether he was elected to anything in high school. “I grew up in a meatpacking town. One of the world’s largest stockyards was located in my home town,” Pawlenty said as he conjured up the South St. Paul of the 1960s. “My mom died when I was sixteen. She had ovarian cancer. And my dad, for much of his life, was a truck driver. Later on, when he got promoted to terminal dispatcher, it was as if he had won the lottery. None of my brothers and sisters went to college. Not because they lacked the capacity, but because they didn’t have the opportunity.” Rather than overplaying the hardship, Pawlenty adroitly changed mood and invoked the memory of his childhood inspiration: Doc Vogel. “I remember walking past my dentist’s office,” he recalled, “and, as I looked at his Buick Riviera parked in the driveway, I began thinking that, to get ahead in life, you had to be a dentist. So I went to college wanting to be a dentist. And several years into it, I had to take organic chemistry—and the rest is history.” By the time Pawlenty had finished this riff, his audience was divided into two camps: those laughing and those applauding.

A few days later, Karin Housley—a Republican who narrowly lost a race for the Minnesota state Senate in 2010 and who is also the wife of former National Hockey League star Phil Housley—took me on a tour of the neighborhood where both she and Pawlenty grew up. Describing the inbred ethos of South St. Paul, Housley said, “They feel like you’ve left them if you’ve made it in the world.” Pawlenty’s three-bedroom-one-bath boyhood home on Twelfth Avenue is a mid-century tract house with four windows on the street and a postage-stamp-sized sloping front yard. The lawns in the neighborhood may be tiny, but they are meticulously manicured, a symbol of working-class pride. Pawlenty grew up Catholic, as are the majority of South St. Paul residents, though the area’s true religion is hockey. (Pawlenty loves hockey, but he never made it beyond high school junior varsity. The school’s former coach, Doug Woog, who later won renown at the University of Minnesota, says he was “a bit light” for hockey and otherwise “pretty nondescript,” adding that, “if somebody was going to be governor out of South St. Paul—and I don’t want to be negative here—I wouldn’t have guessed Tim Pawlenty.”)

Unless an inventive Democratic oppo-researcher can find the mansions hidden behind the hedgerows in a secret enclave of South St. Paul, it is difficult to challenge the authenticity of Pawlenty's roots. Especially when one Republican rival is the son of a billionaire (Jon Huntsman) and another (Romney) is rich enough to have squandered $44 million on his 2008 presidential campaign. “Whether you agree with Tim Pawlenty’s politics or not, you have to hand it to him,” says Dave Metzen, who was assistant superintendent of schools in South St. Paul when Pawlenty was growing up and who later served in his gubernatorial administration. “He really came from nothing.”

Today, as a presidential candidate, Pawlenty seems torn about how much to emphasize his humble origins. He has none of the populist exuberance of Mike Huckabee. When Pawlenty ran for governor in 2002, he talked boldly about making the Republicans “the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club.” During our interview, when I asked him about the relevance of his background, he said vaguely, “If you’re going to be president of the United States, people want to know who you are. Part of that is the question-and-answer: Where did you come from? How did that experience shape you?” Then, moments later--perhaps worried that he might offend a wealthy donor--Pawlenty retreated, sort of. “It doesn’t mean that anybody’s background is any better or worse than anybody else’s,” he said. “But it’s one factor, or one thing, that people use to differentiate candidates. It’s not the only thing. It’s perhaps not even the most important thing.”

Spurning dentistry, Pawlenty attended the University of Minnesota Law School. There he met and later married Mary Anderson, whose father was a home-builder in the more affluent Minneapolis suburb of Edina. Mary Pawlenty--who served more than a decade as a state district court judge--is a formidable campaigner by most accounts, although I did not see her in New Hampshire. Early in their courtship, Mary led Pawlenty to her interdenominational, evangelical mega-church, Wooddale Church, and to her pastor, Leith Anderson, who married them. In his campaign autobiography, Courage to Stand, Pawlenty calls Anderson “an incredibly gifted teacher and speaker. ... He drew me in, to the point where if I missed the message any given week, often I’d get a tape of it and listen to it later.”

Both in Courage to Stand and in speaking to social conservatives in Iowa, Pawlenty peppers his words with Biblical verses (a religious touch missing from his rhetoric in more secular New Hampshire). But it would be a mistake to see either Wooddale Church or Leith Anderson in Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell terms. Anderson, who serves as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was named by Barack Obama to his advisory council on faith-based initiatives. In an interview, I asked Anderson whether his opposition to abortion and gay marriage was a major motif of his sermons. “The church doesn’t have formal policies,” he replied. “The pro-life position would probably be understood. Have I preached sermons on it? I have. ... But it would more likely come up in the telling of the Christmas story.” As for gay marriage, Anderson said, “Would you come to the church and hear about it? Probably not.” For his part, Pawlenty described his pastor to me as “not a particularly political person.”

After law school, Pawlenty followed a predictable path to a blue-chip Minneapolis firm, a new home in the upscale suburb of Eagan, a seat on the city council, and election in 1992, at age 31, to the state legislature. As is customary in a part-time legislature like Minnesota’s, Pawlenty maintained his law practice. “He’d come in from his office around 2:30 in the afternoon,” recalls Hanson, who then worked for the Republicans in the state House and later became Pawlenty’s finance commissioner as governor. Describing Pawlenty as a legislator, Hanson says, “He could be really precise and formal one moment, and a good old boy the next.” Pawlenty flirted with running for governor in 1998 before stepping aside for Norm Coleman, who went on to lose to Jesse Ventura. But the Republicans won control of the state House that November, and Pawlenty was elected majority leader.

PAWLENTY HAS ALWAYS displayed a striver’s zeal for advance planning and perfectionism--and that may well be his defining trait as a politician. “He is a great strategist,” says Steve Sviggum, who became house speaker at the same time Pawlenty was elevated to majority leader. “When we would negotiate as majority leader and speaker, he’d have the endgame mapped out in advance and have already figured out alternative ways to get there.” But Sviggum was both amused--and occasionally irked--at Pawlenty’s penchant for sweating the small stuff. “Tim would re-work almost every line in every news release,” Sviggum recalls. “He would get into minute detail, and there were times that he’d try to manage too much.”

That same obsession carried over to the governor’s office. “He was a very detail-oriented governor,” says Charlie Weaver, who was Pawlenty’s first chief of staff. “When it came to the legislature, he’d read every bill. He’d read every press release. He’s a nit-picker. It used to drive me crazy.” Hanson, who was deputy chief of staff at the time, says: “It was Trivial Pursuit every time I’d brief the governor. He’d ask questions until I missed one. The game was how long could we go before he got me.”

Although it rarely comes up on the campaign trail, a potential president’s administrative style matters more than his predictable response to the one hundred thirty-ninth straight question about his expectations for the Iowa Straw Poll. When I asked Pawlenty about his reputation for detail-obsessed management--even citing Weaver’s nit-picking comment--he acknowledged, “That may have been true in the past, but it isn’t true more recently.” Harking back to his transformation from a legislator with a tiny staff to a governor in 2003, Pawlenty said that he adopted “a more delegating style” as he “got a bigger team and got a team that I trusted.” But the former governor also conceded that “the need to micro-manage more or macro-manage more depended on who was working for me at the time.”

The topic clearly hit a nerve with Pawlenty. When I attempted to move on and ask a question on an entirely different subject, Pawlenty interrupted me. “On this nit-picker issue,” he began--and then launched into another protestation that he had evolved since Weaver worked for him.

But, whether or not Pawlenty has changed, it is possible to see much of his career through the prism of someone always trying to meticulously plan a few steps ahead. Despite Minnesota’s tradition--dating back to Harold Stassen (who also had South St. Paul roots)--of moderate Republican governors, Pawlenty came into office determined to never deviate from his no-new-taxes pledge. Inheriting from Ventura in 2003 a projected $4.6 billion budget deficit (a bit smaller than the one Pawlenty left to his Democratic successor Mark Dayton), the new governor slashed state services and spending. Confronted with another budgetary shortfall in 2005, and enduring a nine-day partial government shutdown, Pawlenty championed a $380 million, 75-cents-a-pack wholesale cigarette-tax increase--which he was careful to call a Health Impact Fee. The subterfuge fooled no one--including then-State Senator Michele Bachmann, who denounced the Health Impact Fee as a “tax increase” that “would set the stage for more tax increases”--but today such legerdemain allows Pawlenty to run for president claiming that he did not raise taxes.

Indeed, during the Pawlenty administration, everything took a backseat to fulfilling his tax pledge. “What is the signature issue of the Pawlenty administration?” muses Jacobs, the political scientist. “You would have to say that it was negative. It’s what he prevented. But what did Pawlenty create? You can make the case about what Mitt Romney did on health care. It was pretty controversial, but there’s a record there. But, with Pawlenty, he slowed down state spending. He helped hold the line on new state taxes. That’s really the extent of it. And that’s disappointing, because the guy is bright. In terms of brain power, he’s unusual.”

Perhaps the best example of Pawlenty gaming things out a few steps ahead of the pack came during his second term. Reelected by just 21,000 votes in November 2006, Pawlenty two months later made renewable energy one of the four cornerstones of his State of the State address to the legislature. “Minnesota can’t reverse global climate change by ourselves,” he declared. “But we can do our part and help lead the way. Our energy plan will significantly reduce the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere. I look forward to working with the Democrats and the Republicans to pass and sign comprehensive historic renewable energy legislation this year.” Pawlenty endorsed cap-and-trade, and his far-reaching environmental agenda called for Minnesota to derive 25 percent of its electricity from wind power and solar energy by 2025. As Sviggum put it, “Tim was a bit more green than I was.” By 2008, Pawlenty had begun seriously discussing visiting the North Pole with Arctic adventurer Will Steger, a Minnesota native, to see firsthand the effects of global warming.

That notion died just about the same time that John McCain began vetting Pawlenty as a potential 2008 running mate. Democratic State Senator Steve Murphy, who negotiated with Pawlenty on energy-related transportation issues, recalls, “When it became public that he wasn’t going to the North Pole with Will Steger, everybody knew that Tim Pawlenty, the environmentalist, was history.”

Pawlenty now treats this period of his gubernatorial career as the equivalent of a politician’s pot-smoking college days. “Everyone has some clunkers in their record, and cap-and-trade is one of mine,” he has said. During our interview, Pawlenty ticked off practical reasons for not trekking to the North Pole with Steger, ranging from cost (“I couldn’t do it at state expense, because it didn’t seem like a good use of state money”) to time pressures (“It’s not easy to carve out a week or two of the governor’s schedule”). But, in the end, Pawlenty contended that his melting enthusiasm for both the Arctic adventure and cap-and-trade was based on a gimlet-eyed assessment of the science. Despite the media pretending there was “almost unanimous scientific consensus on the issue of climate change,” Pawlenty argued that it turned out “much of the science was flawed, some of it was rigged, and [there was] a robust voice of skepticism pushing back against what was reported as the consensus.” As I heard Pawlenty rattle off this list of rationales and Fox News bromides, a robust voice of skepticism in my head wondered if national ambition had something to do with the dramatic change in his views.

BEING VETTED AND then rejected for the vice presidency was a turning point for Pawlenty. “It was painful for him to be courted by McCain and then not to get it,” says Weaver, who has been close to Pawlenty since law school. “It was like not going to the prom after buying the dress.”

So, this time around, Pawlenty was going to leave nothing to chance, using the same methodical approach as he did back in the ’90s when he was war-gaming legislative strategies with Sviggum. Other candidates (Huntsman, Rick Perry) dithered about running, but Pawlenty was decisive. Other candidates cherry-picked the early states (Romney has ducked out of the Iowa Straw Poll), but the underfunded Pawlenty is running everywhere, with eight paid staffers in New Hampshire alone. Before anyone defined the contours of the GOP policy debates, Pawlenty firmly positioned himself to Romney’s right on taxes, calling for a top individual rate of 25 percent and eliminating all capital gains levies. (As for the $2 trillion revenue loss, Pawlenty magically waved it away by positing an unrealistic longterm 5 percent growth rate.)

And yet something intangible still seems to be missing: Pawlenty comes across as lacking a sharply defined personality. People who know him bristle at the notion of a charisma deficit, although they are maddeningly short on specifics. “I think that he has sometimes been misrepresented as less than scintillatingly interesting,” says Anderson, his pastor. “He is actually a very interesting person.” Sviggum makes a similar point: “He’s been branded by the national press as bland. If you know Tim Pawlenty, that’s just wrong. He’s a jokester, a prankster.” When I asked Sviggum for an example or an anecdote, he replied with frustration audible in his voice, “I’m not coming up with anything right now.”

Part of Pawlenty’s dilemma may be that his type-A tendencies make him appear contrived as a campaigner. There is something overly cautious, overly thought-out about the way he presents himself. Every time Pawlenty delivers an attack line, you can picture the staff meetings that led up to it. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” in mid-June, Pawlenty, responding to a question planted by his own campaign, attacked Romney for providing the template for “Obamneycare.” But then Pawlenty somehow balked at repeating this line of attack in the New Hampshire debate--exasperating his staff and yielding the spotlight to Bachmann. Finally, after two days of public silence, a back-on-message Pawlenty went on Sean Hannity’s TV show to ruefully admit, “I should have been much more clear during the debate.” A month later, on “Meet the Press,” Pawlenty offered an obviously planned critique of Bachmann, calling her record in Congress “non-existent.” This time around, Pawlenty had the gumption to follow up, repeating the charge almost word-for-word on “Fox and Friends” the next morning.

As Pawlenty is fast discovering, methodical step-by-step planning and his tendency to overanalyze every move can carry you only so far in presidential politics. Spontaneity matters, especially this year on the Republican side. In fact, this may be the worst possible year for Tim Pawlenty to plot out a Tim Pawlenty-style campaign. Amid the rancor of the conservative base, especially in Iowa, it might not be enough for Pawlenty merely to be a budget-slashing, anti-tax, anti-abortion Republican insider. At the moment, GOP voters appear to crave passion, anger, and even a dollop of caution-to-the-wind irresponsibility. No wonder Bachmann, who never cast a large enough shadow in Minnesota to be a rival, is outperforming him.

And yet presidential politics are unpredictable--and redemption and rebirth are common. John Kerry and John McCain were both struggling at this point in 2003 and 2007. And so, it seems premature to write off Pawlenty. Especially since he has a formidable asset that can help him survive the demolition derby that is the Iowa Straw Poll: Leaving nothing to chance, Tim Pawlenty--the striver from South St. Paul, the nit-picker, the war-gamer, the micromanager--still boasts the best political organization in Iowa.

Walter Shapiro is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.