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).
In normal circumstances, this virtue would be a pleasing contrast to President Obama's increasingly touchy, brittle public persona. But there are drawbacks to being a nice guy in an angry time. No tea party activist will find Pawlenty the most enraged choice. His attempts at stump-speech outrage come across like a Baptist trying to swear; the words are right but the melody is lacking. Which raises the question: In a party of the incensed, can Pawlenty win the nomination without sacrificing his authenticity?
Pawlenty responds that niceness is not inconsistent with toughness. He recounts his confrontation with Minnesota's public transportation union to limit its overgenerous health benefits. "People were standing outside my house holding signs. We shut down the (bus) system for 44 days." Eventually, like Reagan staring down the air traffic controllers union in 1981, Pawlenty got his concessions.
But Pawlenty suffers from another possible handicap in the Republican race -- a history of policy innovation. In Minnesota, he instituted a performance pay system for teachers and passed a market-based health reform for public employees that reduced health cost inflation. "I can take conservative ideas and values," he says, "and make them connect at the gut level with people who are not Republicans." Pawlenty has been one of the Republican Party's most serious policy modernizers. But given the current Republican mood, modernization and outreach are not much in demand.
It says something about our political moment that Pawlenty's civility and policy creativity are not advantages in a presidential run. But he possesses other possible advantages. His quiet evangelical Christianity could attract interest, particularly if former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee does not run. His governing seriousness might impress Republican leaders and conservative intellectuals.
And Pawlenty's fiscal record may fit the moment, particularly if his daughter's worries about public debt prove widespread. "Change has to come," he says. "It is a matter of junior high school math. Entitlement spending is going up. Revenues are likely to be flat, even as the economy recovers. The outcome is certain; it is just the timing that is in question. When President (George W.) Bush attempted entitlement reform (in 2005), the country wasn't ready to take up entitlements. Congress wasn't ready for reform. But they're warming up. There is a saying: 'When the pupils are ready, the teacher will appear.' The pupils are getting ready."