The McGill Report

Pawlenty Gives Free Trade a Chance

Rochester, MN -- The world is watching his fight to help Minnesotans buy drugs from Canada

When you have a conservative, pro-business Republican governor quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a role model, you know something big is up.

"During an earlier time of crisis, President Roosevelt pushed for innovation," Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared at a U.S. Senate hearing last month, defending his controversial plan to help Minnesotans buy drugs from Canada. "He said 'It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.'"

In a year dominated by the depressing drip-drip-drip of budget cuts, the governor's drug plan has been his political lifesaver in many ways. It's given him the chance to show long-range vision and leadership; to thump his chest on a national stage; and to gain favor with many constituencies, especially senior citizens already buying prescription drugs in Canada, or wanting to.

But noting only these potential political gains seriously underestimates the true historic significance of the plan, which is bringing international attention to Minnesota for the way it boldly links America's deepening health care crisis to the argument for expanded global free trade.

Health Costs

The state has probably not been close to attracting this amount of international attention since the glory days of the Minnesota Miracle in the 1970s. The outcome is far from certain, but the world is watching.

Pawlenty's powerfully simple message is that more global trade is the best solution to the U.S. health care crisis. Subject the whole mess to the cleansing effect of global competition, he says, and the next thing you know we'll have a stronger, more efficient U.S. health care system.

The governor's vision puts Minnesota in direct opposition to President Bush and the U.S. federal government, which strongly favors protecting America's giant pharmaceutical companies from increased foreign competition. The Food and Drug Administration has floated the idea of suing the state if the governor's plan is enacted.

Health care is so huge a part of the American economy (14 percent), with health care costs spiraling ever high and the numbers of uninsured also skyrocketing, that a major opening of the U.S. economy to global competition in this sector would be profoundly transformative in an unpredictable and possibly revolutionary way.

Bioscience Facilities

Even though it's got the most attention, the drug plan is only half of the governor's vision. He is also pushing the state to vastly increase its global exports as well. To that end, the governor in his first year in office has traveled often to Canada, Minnesota's largest trading partner, to encourage commercial partnerships between Minnesota and Canadian companies in tourism, manufacturing, and biotechnology services.

The proposed "biotech corridor" between Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota is indeed but the southern leg of an international corridor that would extend all the way to St. Boniface Hospital and other bioscience facilities in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Two decades ago, attracting a Toyota factory to town was a good answer to ensuring a community's future growth. The factory was owned by Japanese and sold cars to Americans. Now the idea is for a partnership of Minnesota and Canadian companies to make and sell products to the entire world.

The governor is selling his radical ideas with fearlessness and a gusto that suggests he knows he's caught a tiger by the tail.

Something Big

"There's a rebellion brewing across America," Pawlenty told a group in Boston recently. "It is the prescription drug equivalent of the Boston tea party. Seniors and Americans in general can no longer afford to pay substantially more for the same medications that citizens in other parts of the world obtain less expensively.

"We take advantage of globalization and world trade when we buy a car, clothing items, or a DVD. We should do the same for prescription drugs."

Now some of Pawlenty's financial supporters are crying foul, too.

"In view of what I consider his demagogic and unprincipled advocacy of pharmaceutical price controls, it is questionable whether I will even be able to support his re-election in 2006," John Hinderaker, a fellow of the conservative Claremont Institute and a Pawlenty backer, wrote recently.

So far the governor isn't backing down an inch. He's swinging for the fences, and a good thing too. He's onto something really big.


Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report