If Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty runs for president in 2012 -- and early signs suggest he is beginning to lay that groundwork -- he'll have two clear things to offer: He's an affable Republican who's shown he can win a key state, and he's a fiscal conservative who's ready to exploit any backlash to Barack Obama's big government. In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival Thursday, Pawlenty presented himself as a bulwark against federal spending. "The country cannot sustain the level of financial commitments that we have now, particularly in the entitlement programs. If we don't change it, we're going to have the government equivalent of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and it's going to come relatively soon." (Video of interview to be posted on TheAtlantic.com early next week, along with video of other interviews from the Festival.)
Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's short list for vice president, is on every great mention list for 2012 GOP candidates. "I don't know what I'm going to do be doing three years from now," demurs Pawlenty, who announced last month he will not run for a third term next year. He says he wants to travel the country and speak out on issues, but beyond that, "I don't know what my future holds."
Pawlenty acknowledged that the GOP is struggling. The president is popular, the Democrats control the government, and the GOP is the victim of several self-inflicted wounds, namely Ensign and Sanford. "If the Republican party were a sports team and the coach and general manager were sitting here, he or she would say, 'It's a rebuilding year. We gotta get some new draft picks, we gotta make some trades, we gotta do things differently.' "
One question is whether Pawlenty, a married father of two who's a convert to evangelical Christianianty, would be able to claim that his is the party of family values. Pawlenty insists it can, but concedes that Sanford makes this positioning more complex, at least for now. "For Republicans and others, if you say you're about one thing and you do something else, people don't like that. It's a basic fact of life...We're going to have to earn back the support of the American voter, that's for sure."