Tim Pawlenty as a leading indicator

Tim Pawlenty is the remarkably talented Republican governor of Minnesota and and co-chair of the McCain presidential campaign. Last month the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti came out to Minnesota to interview the governor and spend a day with him in his element as he traveled from St. Paul to rural Minnesota. (I had lunchwith Matt to talk about the governor and Minnesota politics before his initial interview with Pawlenty.) Matt’s long feature article on Governor Pawlenty — “Tooting the horn of Pawlenty” — appears in the new issue of the Standard that is out this morning. It’s an interesting and informative article, beginning with Matt’s portrait of Pawlenty’s blue-collar background, his original undergraduate interest in dentistry and his migration to politics.
Matt notes the leftward shift of the electorate that was reflected decisively in the last election, especially among younger voters:

Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.
Nowhere is the Democratic advantage more clear than with voters 18 to 29 years old. Voting patterns among this cohort shape the political environment for years to come. In the 1984 presidential election, 18- to 29-year-olds voted 40 percent Democratic and 59 percent Republican. In the 1986 congressional election, 18- to 29-year-olds were pretty much split down the middle, voting 51 percent Democratic and 49 percent Republican. One could argue such voting patterns helped set the stage for conservative governance.
After more than a decade of mirroring general electoral trends, however, the youth vote has veered left. In 2004, 18- to 29-year-olds went Democratic 54 percent to 45 percent. In the 2006 congressional elections, these voters went Democratic 60 percent to 38 percent, making them one of the most Democratic groups in the country–voting for the donkey at about the same levels as union members. If this youthful cohort continues to vote in similar ways as it grows older, the GOP is in serious trouble.

Enter Tim Pawlenty, who is navigating his way in this uncongenial political environment as it has manifested itself in Minnesota:

The source of Pawlenty’s energy is his frustration at the contemporary GOP. He becomes most passionate when he discusses Sam’s Club Republicanism–a theory of politics he’s done more than anyone else to put into action. (Pawlenty shops frequently at Wal-Mart, incidentally. He and his brother recently bought storage racks for his basement at Sam’s Club, however.) He can go on and on about how conservatives wear these ideological blinders that prevent them from seeing new political realities.
“The country is changing,” Pawlenty says. “Socially, demographically, economically, technologically. And that doesn’t mean that you throw your principles that you built your party on, your philosophy on, out the window–you just have to make sure they are translated into terms . . . relevant in the political marketplace of today, not to mention tomorrow.”

The translation comprises government programs in health care and energy that are exceedingly unpalatable for conservatives. Continetti depicts Pawlenty speaking on his usual themes at CPAC in Washington, a little like Daniel in the lion’s den. It was a performance that demonstrates one side of Pawlenty’s impressive political skills. Continetti saw another side on display as the governor played wall ball with elementary school students in outstate Minnesota:

It’s 10:25 A.M. at the Bert Raney elementary school in Granite Falls, Minnesota, and Tim Pawlenty is dressed for gym class. He’s wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and tennis shoes and is about to play wall ball with a bunch of kids in the second and third grades. Pawlenty just spent a half hour reading to first graders, but you could tell the whole time he couldn’t wait for gym. It’s easy to see why: Wall ball looks like a fun game. There are four electronic pads with targets attached to the wall at one end of the gym. The kids are split into four teams at the other end. Once the clock starts you have to sprint toward your team’s pad, throw your ball, and hope to hit a target. If you hit the target you score points. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins. The targets make a whole bunch of funky electronic noises when hit. Wall ball is an ingenious game, says the gym teacher. The kids are so focused on throwing the ball at the pad, they don’t realize they are also doing long sprints. It tires the rugrats out.
The wall ball game highlights two facts about Pawlenty. First, he is athletic. In 2005 he ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 3 hours and 43 minutes–an improvement over the 3 hours and 59 minutes it took him to finish in 2004. Growing up, Pawlenty played hockey. He is still a rabid NHL fan. The first website he visits each morning is hockeyfights.com, which shows combat highlights from the previous night’s games. He plays the ESPN hockey video game in his spare time, often taking on one of his two daughters. This love of competition manifests itself even playing wall ball with second- and third-graders. Pawlenty throws himself into the game, scoring a lot of points but never letting his team get too far ahead of the others.
Second, Pawlenty embodies the concept known as Minnesota Nice. Minnesotans are impeccably polite. They always seem to be smiling. They seem shorn of arrogance. They avoid conflict. How these people elected Jesse Ventura governor is a mystery. Playing wall ball, Pawlenty lets the kids take the lead and congratulates the members of other teams when they hit a hard-to-reach target. Someone jokes that if Ventura were here he would tackle the kids and use the reporters as human javelins with which to pierce the wall pads.

I wonder if wall ball provides the right metaphor for Matt’s portrait of Pawlenty. I think dodge ball would be more like it. It’s a long, thought-provoking and troubling article, all of which is worth reading.
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