Governor Cool

Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty talks about his plans for a new, hipper GOP—and why it might have for the best that he didn’t get the veep nomination.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is super nice, which may be why, in the end, John McCain skipped over this stalwart surrogate for the somewhat folksier Sarah Palin. But he may yet finish first. His low-key charm and successful record on key issues (primarily energy and education) have propelled him to the top tier of possible Republican nominees for 2012.

Pawlenty governs his mostly blue state as a pragmatic conservative, not just working with Democrats but establishing relationships with them, creating an atmosphere of respect that the governor recently had to explain to a baffled Sean Hannity. Discussing the ongoing Minnesota Senate recount, Hannity implied that the Democratic secretary of state, Mark Ritchie, might have his finger on the scale, and that "cheating" was "going on." Pawlenty refused to take the bait: "I want to be clear about this. I know Mark Ritchie. He is a partisan on the other side of the aisle as I am as governor. He is trying his best to conduct this fairly."

“‘Drill, baby, drill’ is, not by itself, a comprehensive, contemporary energy strategy.”

Recently, I tried to throw Pawlenty off his Minnesota nice routine, as well. And I also failed.

Q: Under what circumstances would you go hunting with Sarah Palin?

A: [Laughs] Under any circumstances. I understand she's a good hunter, so it's all good.

Q: What does the phrase "lost in the wilderness" mean to you?

A: You know, I use a different phrase, I use the phrase, "a Dr. Phil moment of self-analysis." You know there's going to be an inevitable internal debate about where the Republican Party is and where it's headed. I think it boils down to two things; those who are gonna say it's gotta be more conservative and go back to its roots [he pronounces this word as "ruts"]. Others who say it's gotta be more modern, not to be confused with "moderate." But I think those two things can be harmonized. They can be fused together in a way that allows us to be both a conservative and a contemporary, or fresh, party.

And so like a computer screen, I think the screen has kind of gone black and we need to hit the "refresh button" for the Republican party.

Q: Hit "restart?

A: Well maybe not "restart" but at least "refresh."

Q: What do Republicans have to be optimistic about right now?

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A: A number of things. First of all, I think you've got good talent, particularly among Republican governors who will help lead the way out of this problem. I think you have a strong market-place signal that's going to force us to respond differently because you can't be a majority governing party when you essential can't compete in the Northeast, you lose all or nearly all of the Great Lakes states, you lose all the East Coast states, you lose increasing numbers of western states, you lose several mid Atlantic states, you're behind with women, you're behind with Hispanics, you're behind with African-Americans, you're behind with younger voters and the other side is raising more money and got you beat by fifteen years of technology—that is not a formula for success. So there is a lot of work to do, but that is the work we're facing and that is a candid assessment of it. And so we have to re-connect with our customers and the people that we serve. We've not done a good job with that.

Q: To think of them as "customers" that would be sort of a leap.

A: Well, we serve them. They are our bosses and our customers. Part of the challenge I think with the Republican Party is we have to do a better job communicating. Not just tactically, in terms of technology, but in the ability to explain and communicate. Barack Obama beat us almost two to one with younger voters in part because of his message but in part because he had a platform and an environment [that] technologically was welcoming and engaging and they found it welcoming and engaging … of course, having a million dollars to spend makes that somewhat easier.

Q: I've heard you describe yourself as a traditional, mainstream conservative, but you don't seem that way to me. What is it about you that makes liberals like me not frightened of you?

A: [Laughs] I consider myself a conservative, you know, it's a worn-out phrase, in the Reagan tradition. If you look at the whole Reagan record … part of it was he was pragmatic, he was hopeful, he was optimistic, he was civil, he was positive. But I think the Republican Party needs to be more contemporary.

Q: When you say "contemporary," you don't mean moderate, so what do you mean? Decode that for me.

A: I will decode that for you. A couple of tangible examples. We were behind on the energy debate. It was a huge need. It was part of the reason we're in this economic trouble and instead of scrambling to come up with some stuff over the last year like we did as a national party, we should have been doing what Minnesota and some other individuals and groups have done and been addressing this aggressively, fifteen or twenty years ago. "Drill, baby, drill" is, not by itself, a comprehensive, contemporary energy strategy. We should not have been the party DRAGGED to the renewable energy debate, we should have been out leading it, with OUR approaches, ideas and incentives for it.

That's an example, another example: just the bread and butter issues. I won't go through them all because your eyes will glaze over, but one actual example is, people are worried—“How am I gonna pay for my kid's tuition?” Republicans could be very modern, reach out to young people by saying, “We're going to reduce your tuition, and here's how we're going to do it. We're going to make the program have more variety, it's going to be more accessible, it's going to be more technologically savvy, it's going to look more like an iPod than a 1940s assembly line. We're gonna offer money to regional universities or universities that can put all or most of their degrees online. And we're gonna help pay for it. Instead of building more buildings, we're migrating delivery of higher education services online and once you add one more student to an online program, the marginal cost is zero—and so instead of having a debate about tuition going up X percent or Y percent, we could be talking about tuition going down X percent or Y percent. And, by the way, you can access it anywhere, any time, best of class…” And that would, I think, relate to young people. It would be technologically "current," it would be talking about reforming the way we deliver a service, it would about providing it better, cheaper, faster… it would be “cool.”

Q: I don't know if I'd use the word "cool" to describe "studying," but it would be very modern…

A: It's one example of how the application of ideas is happening to some degree already… but how the application of Republican ideas could help people do things better, faster, cheaper.

Q: You're not mentioning social issues at all. Is that just something that Republicans are not going to have a debate about anymore?

A: I think it's unrealistic to ask people or to think that people who are very passionate about their core values, to throw them out the window. They're not going to do that. The fact of the matter is that the Republican Party, most people, not all, tends to be a socially conservative party. It's going to stay that way because people aren't going to take their values and throw them out the window nor should they be asked to.

Q: At end of it all, are you kinda glad you didn't get the VP nod?

A: You know, I never started the exercise of my support of John McCain with that in mind. I genuinely admire the man; he's one of my personal heroes, I have a great deal of respect for him. And so it was a labor of love for me to help him. It's an honor to have your name mentioned, and it's exciting to have your name mentioned, but I am grateful for what I have, not ungrateful for what I don't have.

Q: Indeed, you might be grateful that you didn't get it?

A: In light of the way it all turned out? It might not be the worst thing that I didn't get it.

Q: If Al Franken wins, do you think Minnesota will bear responsibility for people like Chris Matthews [and other celebrities] running for Senate?

A: [Laughs]

Q: You're making it look like anyone can do it!

A: Without any regard or reference to Al Franken or Chris Matthews, the reality of it is, is that, because we've become such an entertainment culture, people gravitate toward fame, novelty, marketing, money… so I think in the future you will see more celebrity candidates.

Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days. She has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.