WASHINGTON -- "A few days ago," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty relates, "I was having breakfast with my wife, my 91-year-old mother-in-law and daughters, 17 and 13. On TV there was a news report about the financial situation in Greece. Out of the blue, my 13-year-old said, 'This is going to be us pretty soon.' I almost dropped my fork. This is an eighth-grader."
It sounds a bit like Jimmy Carter in 1980, telling the much-mocked story of a discussion on nuclear proliferation with his 13-year-old daughter Amy. But Pawlenty -- all Midwestern, blue-collar candor -- is nothing if not sincere. And his daughter's macroeconomic judgment is disturbingly insightful.
"Something is happening for the first time of my adult life," Pawlenty continues. "Average people, not activists, are openly talking about debt and the deficit with an understanding that it matters. They know something is amiss. One of the driving sentiments is that government is out of control. "
Pawlenty is among the least known of Republicans angling for his party's presidential nomination in 2012. Pawlenty himself estimates that 75 percent of the GOP has no idea who he is. But he exhibits the confidence of a man holding at least a few aces.
If the problem is deficits, Pawlenty believes he is the solution. From 1960 to 2002, state spending in Minnesota increased by an average of 21 percent every two years. As governor, Pawlenty has held the growth of spending to just over 2 percent. Last year, he cut state spending in real terms -- the first time that has happened in 150 years. "We cut everything except public safety and K through 12 education," he says. "We changed the entitlement structure." All while moving Minnesota off the list of the top 10 most heavily taxed states.
Pawlenty is the successful conservative governor of one of the most liberal states in the union -- as if Ronald Reagan had been elected in Sweden. One explanation is his disarming, beer-sharing niceness, which is among Minnesota's main exports to the nation (exception: the seething Sen. Al Franken).