The ongoing showdown between Tim Pawlenty and the DFL majorities in the House and Senate puts me in mind of “Quien es Más Macho?,” the old Saturday Night Live skit in which contestants on a Latin game show had to choose which of two prominent figures is “more macho.” Bruce Willis or Kim Il Jung? Donald The Trump or Rosie O’Donnell? Quien es Más Macho? You decide!
Fingers twitching, Pawlenty has vowed to draw down again and again on his veto pen should the pusillanimous varmints in the Legislature dare send him any of their lily-livered bills calling for tax increases, pet spending measures, domestic partnership benefits or anything else he takes a dislike to.
Already gun-shy from vetoes of bills they worked on for several months, DFL lawmakers have been put into a compromising mood. But even having stripped some of the very features from several pieces of legislation that Pawlenty warned would trigger a veto, these same legislators have watched their bills fall before a veto anyway or threatened with same. Small wonder they are feeling spooked.
Purely from a public policy standpoint, this doesn’t make much sense. Two parties engage in a dispute. Party A tells Party B that the dispute will end if Party B compromises by agreeing to do X. Party B does X, but Party A continues the dispute anyway — indeed, ratchets up hostility. On the other hand, we are all familiar with this kind of non-productive interaction. It takes place all the time, and represents a displacement strategy in which the real aim of Party A is to hogtie Party B in a fruitless power struggle. The showdown between Pawlenty and the Legislature is not about policy. It is about power, pure and simple.
Last fall, Tim Pawlenty squeaked back into office with about 40 percent of the vote, and the GOP lost control of the House. He could have responded to that outcome in a couple of different ways. Chastened. Or emboldened by his position at the top of a pyramid of checks and balances in which he can, in essence, exert a negative control over the Legislature, even though the latter now represents the majority of Minnesota’s electorate.
In other circumstances this would be a risky gambit. George Bush’s current showdowns with Congress are doing nothing to raise his public esteem or burnish his ruined credibility. But GW’s a special case: a swaggering incompetent with a reverse Midas touch, he has turned everything he’s touched in the past six years into dross. Pawlenty still possesses a healthy cache of political capital. And his current brinksmanship may even increase that store.
Why? Because, of the many factors behind the Republican ascendancy these past 25 years, one of the most potent has been the GOP’s ability to stake out a position as the party of manhood and of manly virtue, while successfully portraying the Democrats as the party of wimpy cardigan sweaters. Granted, the Democrats have played a big role in creating this image for themselves. And, of course, the GOP could not have succeeded in this ploy if, at the deepest archetypal level, the United States were not an instinctively paternalistic society. Despite hysterical claims about gays and “feminazis” taking things over, America is still very much a country run by men — and white men, at that. (This paternalism, incidentally, may also explain the appeal of the GOP — historically a pro-big business, libertarian organization — to the decidedly small business, non-libertarian Christian Right, which is, as much as anything, exercised by what it perceives to be the threat posed to the patriarchal order by a secular, multi-cultural, libertarian society. An article in the current Vanity Fair speculates that Rudy Guliani’s momentary popularity among social conservatives may stem from the unspoken, perhaps not even fully conscious, perception that his flagrant womanizing is an expression of male prerogative).
In deploying the veto card, Pawlenty is playing right into this strategy. What was the invidious comparison he drew recently between himself and the Legislature? Somebody, he observed, has to act like “the adult” in the room. Translation? He is the adult, the lawmakers children.
It’s the leader as paterfamilias, a familiar motif for the authoritarian right. Pawlenty’s not really an authoritarian (but perfectly willing to pretend to be one if it’s the politically smart move), and he should take heed of the downfall of George W Bush who used similar language back in 2000; remember the snide comments about how the Bush-Cheney ticket was going to put “grownups” back in charge of the White House? Right!
So far, though, the ploy is working. A new poll shows that 70 percent of Minnesotans favor the DFL-sponsored income tax bill raising levies on the state’s wealthiest citizens and using the revenue to offer property tax relief for everybody else. Even though Pawlenty has made it clear he will veto any such proposal, other polls show his popularity ratings are on the rise. Go figure. The situation is not unlike what happened nationally in the 1980s, when poll after poll showed that Americans loved Ronald Reagan even though they didn’t like his policies. Given Reagan’s status as the GOP’s iconic counterpart to the Democrat’s FDR, the comparison is one that’s no doubt in the forefront of Pawlenty’s mind as he gears up for a run for national office in 2008. Whether he can stay in that zone in the event of a special session or a state government showdown is another matter entirely. We’ll see. A lot will depend on whether DFL lawmakers figure out that Pawlenty’s not interested in compromise, or good public policy, just in looking tough.
So — Tim Pawlenty. Or DFL lawmakers. Quienes Mas Macho?