Pawlenty: Balz To The Walz

Remember the key dictum in Media-Republican Party relations – which is such a truism I may codify it as another Berg’s Law: any Republican can be “the good Republican” , until they’re a threat to the Democrats.

So the piece the other day by Dan Balz in the WaPo might actually be good news for TPaw, in a backhanded way; if you interpret it that way, it means he is a contender the Dems are nervous about:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is widely regarded as one of the Republican Party’s rising national leaders. The runner-up to Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, he is a conservative whose blue-collar roots, amiable personality and two terms as governor of a traditionally Democratic state would seem to make him a natural to help his party attract the kind of swing voters who are always fought over in presidential elections.

So far so good.

But the Pawlenty who has stepped onto the national stage in recent months has said and done things that have other Republicans wondering about his instincts and his sure-footedness as a prospective 2012 presidential candidate. Pawlenty could learn from the earlier mistakes of one of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Last week, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Pawlenty was asked repeatedly whether he welcomed Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to vote for the Senate Finance Committee health care bill, in the GOP.

And he ducked it.

Because it’s a stupid, stupid question.  Tim Pawlenty has no say over whom the voters of Maine send to Congress and under what label.

At a time when some conservatives are insisting on purity within the ranks and others say the party must truly be a big tent, Pawlenty ducked the question. He hemmed and hawed, but couldn’t bring himself to say “yes” — suggesting that he believed “no.”

What Pawlenty should have said was “get real, Scarborough.  “Purity” and “Big Tent” are both abstract ideals that don’t exist in the real world, and those (invariably) unnamed Republicans on both side are talking about abstruse principles of “purity” and “inclusion” that mean very little to real voters.  What we need – and I plan – to talk about is making conservatism speak to those in the middle.  Which is, indeed, how I became first the nominee, and then governor, in my state; convincing voters, after decades of irresponsible spendthrift DFL and pseudo-DFL governors, that fiscal resoponsibility was a good thing.  So – is that “purist”, or is that “big tent”, you over-promoted gasbag?”

(I’ll forgive Pawlenty for leaving that last bit out).

Balz’ big problem seems to be that Pawlenty – whom Balz labels a “conservative” early in his piece – says and does things that are “conservative”:

Most recently, he endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in New York’s 23rd congressional district, but he acted only after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin had turned the special election into an intraparty test of strength.

Pawlenty said there is no deliberate effort to move to the right. “In general, I’ve governed as a conservative in Minnesota, so being conservative isn’t like a new development or a revelation,” he said.

Now, let’s step back a bit.  Balz thesis is that Pawlenty, in saying things that deliberately court the resurgent conservative movement, is acting like Mitt Romney.

Romney, of course, was accused of being a stealth liberal for having socialized medicine in Massachussetts, among other things; being nearly the sole Republican in office in a state can, and usually will, mean “non-conservative” stuff has to happen.   Pawlenty’s conservatism has flaked around the edges under the pressure from two DFL-controlled chambers in the Legislature; he’s had to adapt, giving way on some peripheral issues (ethanol subsidies) while staying largely true to the big-picture (holding the line on tax cuts and, as much as reasonably possible, the budget).  He’s had to compromise, which is why it’s called “politics” and not “dictatorship”. 

Balz eventually cuts to what passes for a chase – the comparisons with Romney:

Still, there is something Romneyesque in all this. Four years ago, Romney lurched to the right in preparation for his presidential candidacy. He did it on social issues, where his prior support for abortion and gay rights left him vulnerable on his right flank.

Right.  Romney put on the Big Bad Conservative suit to go for the nomination.

But if you can say one thing about Governor Pawlenty, it’s that he’s never “lurched”.  The closest we’ve come is the 2002 nomination race against Brian Sullivan, where he had to put aside his pragmatic, legislative persona (he’d been the House Minority leader) which was slightly moderate by nature and necessity, and run to the right to get the nomination from Brian Sullivan.

Since then – for seven years – Pawlenty has been very consistent on a policy and rhetorical level – which is pretty astonishing, considering the changes in the Minnesota legislature since he took office (in 2002, the GOP controlled the House and made it close in the Senate; today the MNGOP is in the minority in both chambers).

Pawlenty has a consistent record of opposition to abortion and gay marriage. In his case, he appears to be catering to the conservative, populist anger on the right, which is challenging the party establishment and attacking Obama in sometimes extreme language.

The real risk for Pawlenty, as Romney learned in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign, is losing his true voice and his authenticity.

Answering that particular bit requires accepting a few yawning gaps in reason.  First, that opposition to Obama is primarily rooted in “anger”.  There is anger, to be sure – but the vast majority is a thin veneer of pique atop a mass of reasoned disagreement.  Obama’s tax and spending proposals will be ruinous; the healthcare reforms will destroy our healthcare system; the President’s foreign and war policy is pusillanimous.  One may be angry or reasonable in addressing this – or a little bit of each.

Second – that it’s “inauthentic” for Pawlenty to acknowedge this.  It makes no sense; it’d be akin to asking John Kerry to ignore all that post-2000-Florida-recount angst.  No serious person suggested it – because it’s a stupid idea. 

But for a Republican to acknowledge anger, to the media as represented by Dan Balz, means to be consumed by it, as if conservative thought is an on-off switch with only the bandwidth for one message. 

And John Kerry said Republicans were bad with nuance…

That’s the kind of politician Pawlenty has been up to now. The question is whether, at a time of turmoil within the Republican Party and with a need to raise his own profile, he can prepare himself for a possible presidential campaign without sacrificing the best qualities that brought him to this point in his career.

Dan Balz probably doesn’t realize it – but he’s showing Pawlenty’s best qualities for the job.  He’s just still looking at it from Joe Scarborough’s perspective.

And that’s always a mistake.

3 thoughts on “Pawlenty: Balz To The Walz

  1. Pingback: The Greenroom » Forum Archive » Pawlenty: Balz To The Walz

  2. I’m not a big Pawlenty fan, obviously, but I think he handled this one well. As a fairly conservative Republican leader, it’s sensible for him to try to move/keep the party more than less conservative, without trying to politically excommunicate the moderate/liberals in it, and that’s what he clearly was trying to do. There’s a fine line for somebody in that position to walk between blessing Republican liberalism and pushing away less conservative Republicans, and he’s walking it well.

  3. I’ve been a libertarian-leaning-conservative since college (I was the only kid on campus with a Reagan bumper sticker).

    If I were to run for office on a pro-life, strong defense, small government platform, would it be fair to criticize me by saying that I’m “catering” to a certain segment of the electorate who are upset with Obama?

    Wouldn’t it be more fair to say that a large segment of the population is flocking to my standard because it agrees with me?


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