For Tim Pawlenty, Politics Is Like a Hockey Fight

Should we forgive politicians for roughing each other up so long as it's all in the game?


Politics seems like a sordid business. Candidates are always going negative, attacking one another in television interviews, lying about their records, even willfully misrepresenting the words and positions of adversaries. Hence the cynicism of voters. And our cognitive dissonance when we encounter a candidate like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He seems like this nice guy from a small town who would never cheat on his wife and genuinely believes in the tenets of evangelical Christianity. So why did he get into politics instead of working in the private sector and playing ice hockey on the weekends? And how did he go so far?

A revealing passage in Pawlenty's book lends insight into his particular case:

From the outside, there is one part of the hockey tradition that seems barbaric. I'm referring, of course, to hockey fights... Watching two guys, gloves down, helmets off, pounding each other while the ref stands back and lets it happen is understandably unsettling to some. But what most people and even many fans don't realize is that there are unwritten rules and traditions at play in those fistfights on ice... For example, generally speaking, hockey fights don't just break out without warning. If you want to fight, you ask, "You wanna go?" ...If someone is hurt or fought the night before or is at the end of a shift and really tired, that's not necessarily a fair time to fight... You also don't pick on someone who's substantially smaller than you, and you generally don't throw punches if the other fighter is down...

See what I mean? It's somewhat civil, in its own way.

Pawlenty tells us that from hockey fights, he has "learned lessons that have applied, surprisingly, to my career in politics." In fact, he goes so far as to analogize directly between the two:

I like to think a similar order exists in the political arena... I apply some of the unwritten rules of the "code" in negotiations and dealings with political opponents. Think about it. In the legislature, there are no contracts. Deals are made in meetings or sealed with handshakes across negotiating tables, and if you give your word, you've got to keep it. When agreements are reached, you have to live up to those agreements, and sometimes it's up to you to enforce those agreements. You need to hold people to account if they violate those basic rules, if they're mischievous or harmful--on a playground, in a hockey game, under a statehouse dome, or in international affairs. Bad behavior needs to have consequences; otherwise, it will continue. That's not to say the consequences should be overly harsh, and you never want to punch when somebody's down. You want to win, but you don't want to destroy your opponent.

It's a description of a mindset that a lot of politicians must share. Few people think of themselves as nefarious actors. Presumably, when George W. Bush did his infamous push polling in South Carolina circa 2000, or when Hillary Clinton played the race card against Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries, or when John McCain and Sarah Palin divided "real America" from the rest of the country in the general election that year, they were thinking, "it's all in the game."

Interesting that Pawlenty has thought about his own code long enough to compare it to what happens in a sport he has played since childhood. Perhaps it isn't mere coincidence that he hasn't yet done anything as dishonorable as the politicians mentioned above (less optimistically, maybe it's just early in the race). His autobiography does, however, give us one instance of rhetoric that he couldn't ultimately defend.

I'll let T-Paw tell it:

Responding to an increase in state taxes, I said in an interview, "In the cause to cut taxes, Jesse Ventura has left the taxpayers behind enemy lines." Ventura, a former Navy man, apparently heard my comment on the radio and was deeply offended by it. As I returned to my office, the phone rang. It was Ventura's assistant. "The Governor's going to be in your office in five minutes." He was driving all the way in from his house in Maple Grove, she told me. If he was driving twenty-plus miles to see me instead of just calling, clearly he was intent on delivering his message in person. The next thing I knew, Governor Ventura appeared in my office in casual clothes, shut the door, and started shouting. "I was in the military, and we don't leave anybody behind enemy lines, you blankety blank-blank!" It was loud. The Speaker of the House had an adjacent office and later told me he could hear the shouts through the thick, old walls.

At one point we were both standing, and my back was against the wall as he moved toward me. I thought, He's gonna hit me! Truly, I thought for sure it was coming. He's gonna smack me. He was the kind of guy who could get agitated quickly, and I'd seen it often, but I'd never seen him take it to a physical level. I realized that as dramatic and bizarre as this whole situation was, we needed to de-escalate. Without shouting, I calmly told him that I had used the phrase "behind enemy lines" as a rhetorical device, a metaphor, and I never meant for it to reflect on his military service or commitment. He was owed an apology, and I apologized.

The hockey player and wrestling fan in me would have taken some pride in surviving a Jesse Ventura smackdown. But the apology felt better. And that was all it took to let the air out of the balloon. He went from enraged to reasonable and graciously accepted the apology.

The meeting ended well. Sometimes an apology is itself a sign of strength.

Where does this leave us as voters?

Pawlenty wants us to conclude that even when what we see on television or read about on the Web seems unseemly to the uninitiated, a code is at work. That is minimally reassuring. But it doesn't change the fact that the politician's code isn't anything folks in the profession are willing to consistently acknowledge and defend - or that their code is hugely separated from conventional standards of truth and fair play that most of use in our own lives, and desire from our pols.

As voters, how are we supposed to know when Pawlenty is attacking an opponent because he actually believes the words he is saying, and when he is attacking him as a fellow participant in the contact sport of politics? Am I to take it seriously when he says that Barack Obama "readily apologizes for his country while ingratiating himself to our rivals and enemies," or is that just a friendly little check against the sideboards that he'd apologize for in private if Obama took him to be speaking earnestly? Pawlenty is better than most politicians when it comes to conducting himself honorably, and it's still impossible to treat his comments like we would the words of a non-politician.

That's depressing.

Image credit: Reuters