In the run-up to the 2008 Republican convention in the Twin Cities, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was on just about everybody's shortlist of potential VP candidates. It wasn't meant to be. But Pawlenty, a conservative from a rather Blue state, could emerge as a contender for challenging President Obama. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman. Excerpts:
Fineman: Governor, for our year-end issue, we wanted to interview intriguing people about the future, including the future of the Republican Party. Pawlenty: And they weren't available, so you came to see me!
Yes, Sarah Palin was on book tour. What is it about her that is so fascinating? Well, I think she is a political rock star. She got enormous attention and support from a big chunk of the country as the vice presidential candidate. And she has sustained that. In part, it's because she has tapped into a kind of base-level feeling about the role and scope of government. She speaks bluntly and plainly in ways people can understand.
What is she saying about government?
Amongst other things, that it is too big and too bureaucratic and too burdensome.
Well, you say the same thing.
Yes, but we live in a society in which being familiar, being well known, gives you a platform. She certainly has that. The Democrats have all kinds of characters who are interesting, bold, and dramatic. On our side, you guys are obsessed with Palin.
Until literally hours before the convention, you were seen as the most likely pick to be Sen. John McCain's running mate. When did you realize you wouldn't be?
When they didn't take me out of the slot to speak in Denver outside the Democratic convention only days before ours was starting. I didn't just fall off the rutabaga cart, so I figured it out.
Did McCain explain to you why he picked her?
The conversation was pretty brief. I just think he felt he had to do something maybe a little different than what would have been the traditional approach. And I think he felt good about his decision.
Do you think Palin is qualified to be president?
She is easily as qualified as Barack Obama. I would argue she's more qualified in terms of leadership, experience, management, and supervision—actually running something. She was a mayor, head of an energy commission, and governor.
Did she help or hurt the ticket?
My view is that she helped him because she energized the campaign. She brought a fresh and dynamic perspective that I think complemented his strengths really well. I think she helped. I know there are some pollsters who take issue with that.
Some in your party want the Republican National Committee in January to vote to withhold money and endorsements from any GOP candidate who doesn't adhere to at least eight points of a 10-point conservative agenda. What do you think?
I haven't seen it, but just as an approach, rather than having a one-size-fits-all national dictate, we should just try to ensure that each state has an open, transparent, and user-friendly process for Republicans to pick their candidates and platforms, and then not interfere with the results.
How would you describe the state of the Republican Party?
But only a small percentage of voters call themselves Republicans, even though Obama's numbers are down and the economy is weak. Why?
The Republican brand has been badly damaged. We're the marketplace party. So we believe in markets. The ultimate measure of the marketplace is an election, and for the last two election cycles the marketplace has been telling us they prefer the products and services of our competitors. We've gotten our butts kicked in 2006 and 2008. And I think for good reason. You can't say you are going to be fiscally disciplined and then go to Washington and spend like crazy. You can't say, "We are against corruption and bad behavior," and then engage in corruption and bad behavior! I mean, people aren't stupid. They kind of figure out whether your actions and results match up to your rhetoric or they don't. Now we've got an opportunity to reestablish the brand. People are migrating away from President Obama and the Democrats, but they are labeling themselves independent or conservative—not necessarily Republican. We cannot rely on the other side goofing up as a strategy to get them back.
As you say, Republicans need to reestablish credibility for being "fiscally disciplined." Well, here in Minnesota there is a big budget shortfall. Would you consider raising taxes here to close the gap?
I'm not going to start raising taxes now. During these tight economic times, government has to tighten its belt just like average families do.
But is a no-new-taxes pledge still possible in times of massive budget deficits?
Yes. We've showed it's possible in Minnesota, where we have balanced the budget every year without raising taxes despite the projected shortfalls.
How would you propose to balance the federal budget?
Rather than looking to raise taxes, we should pass an amendment to require a balanced budget with exceptions for war, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Congress should reduce discretionary spending, with exceptions for key programs such as the military, veterans, and public safety.
How do we pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
We have to push for more fiscal responsibility elsewhere. Congress should cut current domestic spending and reject costly new proposals like a government takeover of health care.
Was it a mistake to go to Iraq?
No. Now, did we start off with an incorrect premise? It seems.
Pretty big incorrect premise.
Right. But if you look at it in terms of the impact upon history, and the positive that could still come out of it, it may turn out to have been beneficial. We don't want to be Pollyanna-ish, but can we have some semblance of a reasonably functioning, democratically elect-ed, somewhat self-reliant government? Maybe. It's worth playing out the hand.
What do you think about the practice of paying huge bonuses to Wall Street executives, even those at firms that got TARP money?
I do think there were abuses, lots of abuses, that should be either investigated or criminally prosecuted, and regulations need to be modernized. But coming in and setting salaries, that is philosophically troubling to me.
Was the TARP a good idea?
No. I had numerous problems with it. The goal was to ensure that we didn't have a lending freeze. [But] there was no requirement that lending would occur, and it hasn't. No. 2, there were no criteria for who would get the money and under what circumstances and for what. I also thought it was too large.
Let me ask you about social issues your party has been dealing with. In her book, Palin claims that McCain's handlers wanted her to be silent about her belief in creationism. How would you describe your view?
I can tell you how we handle it in Minnesota. We leave it to the local school districts. We don't mandate a curriculum or an approach. We allow for something called "intelligent design" to be discussed as a comparative theory. It doesn't have to be in science class.
Where are you personally?
Well, you know I'm an evangelical Christian. I believe that God created everything and that he is who he says he was. The Bible says that he created man and woman; it doesn't say that he created an amoeba and then they evolved into man and woman. But there are a lot of theologians who say that the ideas of evolution and creationism aren't necessarily inconsistent; that he could have "created" human beings over time.
I know you are opposed to gay marriage, but what about medical benefits for same-sex couples?
I have not supported that.
My general view on all of this is that marriage is to be defined as being a union of a man and a woman. Marriage should be elevated in our society at a special level. I don't think all domestic relationships are the equivalent of traditional marriage. Early on we decided as a country and as a state that there was value in a man and a woman being married in terms of impact on children and the like, and we want to encourage that.
To borrow a phrase, have your views evolved over time?
In 1993 I voted for a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation, housing, and employment. That was 16 years ago.
Yes, gay-rights activists regarded you as a pretty cool guy at the time.
We overbaked that statute, for a couple of reasons. If I had to do it over again I would have changed some things.
That statute is not worded the way it should be. I said I regretted the vote later because it included things like cross-dressing, and a variety of other people involved in behaviors that weren't based on sexual orientation, just a preference for the way they dressed and behaved. So it was overly broad. So if you are a third-grade teacher and you are a man and you show up on Monday as Mr. Johnson and you show up on Tuesday as Mrs. Johnson, that is a little confusing to the kids. So I don't like that.
Has the law been changed?
No. It should be, though.
So you want to protect kids against cross-dressing elementary-school teachers. Do you have any in Minnesota?
Probably. We've had a few instances, not exactly like that, but similar.
OK, glad we settled that. On another topic, should there, as President Obama suggests, be a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally?
As to the 12 to 15 million people who are here illegally, anybody who tells you they are all going be rounded up and thrown out of the country is probably not shooting it to you straight. So we have to make some judgments. If you have been here 12 months and you are a felon and a drug dealer, you should get thrown out. If you've been here 20 years, and you've served in the military, and you have been law-abiding, then allowing you to stay here temporarily, or on an intermittent basis, is OK.
How do you see the GOP race at this early date?
Is Mitt Romney running? I think he would clearly be the frontrunner, he and Palin. And there is Mike Huckabee, of course, and any number of people could emerge out of Congress.
Huckabee is now being criticized for having granted clemencies and commutations when he was governor of Arkansas. Will that hurt him?
I haven't heard Mike's explanation. I don't know all the facts. But in Minnesota we haven't granted any clemencies or commutations, at least since I've been governor.
How about you? Are you going to run?
I say this genuinely, not to be cute or evade your question, but I'm going to finish up my term as governor under what are going to be difficult economic circumstances. I have a PAC I set up. I'll just see. Nobody knows who I am, to speak of. I am known in Minnesota and a few pockets or circles of influence around the country. There is a legitimate question about whether somebody who is basically unknown, isn't independently wealthy, isn't famous, would have a chance.
Isn't it an advantage to be from a blue state—at least if you are successful at balancing the budget and controlling spending this year?
Well, we are doing that. The spending curve is dramatically different than before I became governor. This is a McCarthy-Humphrey-Mondale-Wellstone-Franken kind of place. I'm the first mainstream conservative governor in a long time. If I ran, it would help to come from a place that's an uphill battle. If I can do it in Minnesota, we can do it elsewhere.