Democrats who are trying to blame former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the state government's shutdown may be giving the Republican presidential candidate just the oxygen he needs to revive his flagging campaign, experts familiar with the state’s politics say.
Pawlenty has gone out of his way to raise his profile in the crisis that engulfed his state beginning last weekend, when the government shut down after state lawmakers and the current governor failed to agree on a budget. In sharp contrast to President Obama, who worked on Thursday to cool the rhetoric in the budget crisis he’s facing in Washington, Pawlenty has taken a more aggressive stance.
In a statement on Thursday, Pawlenty mocked a bipartisan commission created to help resolve the crisis by two senior Minnesota leaders – former Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat – as “the political equivalent of Jurassic Park” and urged state GOP lawmakers not to back down from their opposition to tax hikes.
His sharp tone is partly defensive: Mondale said earlier this week that Pawlenty “shifted these issues into the future so that he wouldn’t be around;” Carlson, Minnesota’s previous Republican governor, has blamed Pawlenty for maneuvering costs onto county and local governments, which prompted a $2.5 billion increase in property taxes over 10 years.
But it also could be smart politics, according to some state observers.
“The problem Pawlenty’s seeing is that he’s languishing in Iowa at a time when he’s got to stay relevant,” said Eric Ostermeier, founder of the political site Smart Politics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The popularity of rival Minnesota GOP presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann, with the party’s conservative activists, “is sucking all the life out of his campaign,” he added.
That’s why Democrats’ efforts to tie Pawlenty to the budget crisis could be a gift in disguise. “If the Democrats’ message sticks,” Ostermeier theorized, “then Republicans will be rushing to his side, chalking it up to Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor’ s chair trying to push the blame onto the previous leader, like they have in accusing Democrats of blaming President Bush for Obama’s problems.”
Pawlenty has made his ability to manage the bottom line a pillar of his campaign. He’s airing an ad in Iowa titled “Results, Not Rhetoric,” and, in a Des Moines Register interview this week, he leaned on his record as a state executive to draw a contrast – and level a criticism – at Bachmann’s legislative experience. “As to specific results that have been achieved,” he said, referring to Bachmann, “I’m not sure what they would be.”
But it’s not clear that his record in making state budgets over the last eight years backs up his rhetoric, especially now that Minnesota’s government has shut down due to fiscal gridlock. New Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and a Republican-controlled legislature cannot agree on how to resolve the multibillion-dollar shortfall inherited from Pawlenty and the previous state legislature. State Democrats say that Pawlenty, who left office January 3, used “accounting tricks” to effectively put off a budget crisis until after the end of his term.
Indeed, Pawlenty did balance his state’s budget during the 2010-2011 budget period, but Minnesota’s state government knew as early as 2009 – a year before Pawlenty left office – that it would carry a $5 billion deficit into 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is one of the largest fiscal gaps in the country.
Pawlenty blamed it on the legislature’s refusal to cut spending. “The two years that end during my watch, which is this summer, is going to end in the black, in a surplus,” he told a Nevada television station in April. “The next projected deficit assumes a 27 percent increase in state spending two-year period a budget to two-year period over budget. That is ridiculous.”
Part of that spending increase, however, is a reflection of how his administration balanced the budget -- including a decision to defer payments to a state education fund. That pushed over $1 billion in spending into the next budget cycle. Pawlenty’s critics say he relied on short-term fixes to cover up structural deficits and a revenue stream that was lower than what the state needed to keep its budget afloat.
Under Pawlenty’s administration, the state depleted a billion-dollar tobacco-settlement endowment intended to finance health care costs in the long-term and accepted billions of dollars in stimulus funding.
“We’ve made the same analysis year after year: ‘Once again they relied heavily on short-term fixes to solve the budget problem,’” said Christina Wessel of the nonpartisan Minnesota Budget Project, “shifting the education funding or raiding every pot of money you could find.”
Tony Sutton, chairman of the Minnesota GOP, defended the former governor.
“It’s not a ‘trick;’ it’s frankly not unusual” for a governor to rely on short-term solutions, he argued. The Democrats’ offensive against the former governor “will enhance his chances in a Republican primary, especially when someone from Walter Mondale’s generation, who Republicans know spent money like drunken sailors and put us in this financial mess, sees it worth his time to point a finger,” said Sutton.
The most obvious collateral benefit for a candidate who has been lagging in the polls lies in the adage that all publicity is good publicity. But Ostermeier says it also highlights another aspect of Pawlenty’s political career now controversial in Washington – his ability to reach bipartisan compromise between the executive and legislative branches.
“People are going to realize that it took two to tango when these budget deals were agreed upon,” Ostermeier said. “Using tricks or otherwise, Pawlenty was able to come to an agreement with a Democrat-controlled legislature. So now the question becomes, ‘Why can’t these agreements be made under Dayton and the Republican-controlled legislature?’ Pawlenty must have done something right.”