Sunday, May 29, 2011

The desperation of Tim Pawlenty

There are some who think that Tim Pawlenty is the favourite, if not by much, to win the Republican presidential nomination. (I said that myself earlier this month.)

And while he may not have the name-recognition of a Romney or, needless to say, a Palin (not that she's running or anything, yet), that sort of makes sense. After all, he could turn out to be the compromise candidate between the somewhat more moderate party establishment (Romney) and the right-wing Tea Party insurgency (Palin? Bachmann?). Gingrich, I thought, was aiming at that position, but his campaign has been an utter failure so far and he just has way too much baggage. Pawlenty has executive experience as governor of a bluish state (Minnesota), is perceived to be smart and sensible, seems to be electable (i.e., in Republican terms, not entirely insane), and would appear to be fairly popular, if not really anyone's first choice, across the GOP spectrum, not extreme enough to worry the establishment while sufficiently conservative to appeal to social conservatives and the Tea Party right. He's pretty much the only Republican either running or thinking of running who has that sort of broad appeal. Huntsman, maybe, but he's tarnished by his association with Obama (as ambassador to China) and his utterly unacceptable (to most Republicans) views on issues such as civil unions. (In another time, Huntsman would have been formidable. He still could be, but the party won't let him get that far.)

In a way, Pawlenty is the perfect Republican for 2012. And he's been trying hard to make sure he appeals to the party's extremist base. As far back as August 2009 he was sucking up to the right-wing insanitarium, then by talking up the GOP's (and Palin's) death panel lie about the Democrats' proposed health-care reform. And since then he's positioned himself as a firm opponent of marriage equality and DADT repeal. Earlier this year, he came out, in contrast to his reputation as a moderate, as a social conservative extremist, as the proponent of conservative judicial activism and the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

And yet, however serious a contender he may be, he remains a relative unknown, particularly with so much of the focus on, and with so much energy sucked out of the Republican presidential field by, the likes of Trump, Gingrich, Huckabee, Daniels, Barbour, Bachmann, and now Palin, and with Romney generally viewed as the frontrunner, not to mention as the likely choice of the establishment. Last month, polls showed Trump, Huckabee, and Romney as the clear first tier, with Palin, Paul, and Gingrich behind them. Pawlenty was nowhere to be seen. Nothing has changed. Trump, Huckabee, and Daniels are out, while Bachmann and Palin may soon be in. Meanwhile, there's a lot of talk about other big names getting in: Giuliani, Pataki, Perry. And the latest polls show Pawlenty running well back, behind even Cain.

So is he really the favourite, or is it just that he makes sense as a candidate to those of us who overthink such things? Well, he really does seem to be the only major candidate who has appeal across the party, and there is certainly a path for him to win the nomination: a strong showing in Iowa (first or second), a decent showing in New Hampshire (third or fourth), a strong showing in South Carolina (first or second), then, with big names starting to drop out and the race looking like, say, Romney vs. Palin or Bachmann, emerging as a viable third option who squeaks through the "middle."

The problem for him is getting even that far, and even doing well in Iowa, where Palin or Bachmann would do extremely well with right-wing caucus voters, where someone like Paul could surge, and where the unexciting Pawlenty might just get cast aside.

What's clear, it seems, is that Pawlenty knows he has to strike now, that he knows he has to push his way into the spotlight before it's lost for good, and what we're seeing is a much more aggressive Pawlenty than before. This was a terrible weak for him, notably with the horribly embarrassing Iran/Iraq gaffe (it's easy to misspeak, yes, but he looked utterly clueless -- there's just not way a serious candidate should ever get that wrong, particularly when it was clear the question was about Iran), as well as with the ridiculous tweet about Obama's "European pub crawl" (last time I checked, a president is allowed to travel overseas for diplomatic purposes and, when there, out of respect to his hosts, may partake of the local culture, including, in this case, drinking a Guinness, as if that was so horrible). But the worst came on Friday, when, on CNN, he said this about the president:

Any doofus can go to Washington and maintain the status quo and that's what we've got in the White House and in Congress in terms of their attitude about their willingness to tackle these issues. If we're not going to have leaders who are going to say that and do it and tell the American people, look them in the eye... then we're all wasting our time.

I'm sure this elicited some guffaws among Republicans, but calling the president of the United States, an extremely intelligent man, a doofus? (I'm surprised he didn't call him a hipster doofus.)

And saying that Obama is just a maintainer of the status quo? Hasn't Pawlenty read the Republican talking points about how Obama is a fascist-socialist destroying America? Or is that the status quo?

Yes, yes, Pawlenty is trying -- desperately, it would seem, to get some attention, to get people to talk about him -- to position himself as the serious candidate on the Republican side, as the one who will "tackle these issues" and be honest with the American people, but this was just a pathetic outburst. As Andy Kroll of Mother Jones put it:

A GOP presidential hopeful ripping a Democratic incumbent? Yawn. But calling him a "doofus"? That's awfully sophomoric. Remember, this is a candidate whose campaign slogan promises "a time for truth," casting the former governor as a politician who is serious about America's skyrocketing national debt and bleak labor market. When he unveiled that slogan, there were already plenty of questions about Pawlenty's "truthiness." Now, with the spicy tweets and using juvenile takedowns, it's even harder to take Pawlenty seriously.

Yes, so much for Pawlenty being The Candidate of Truth. So much for his "courage to stand." All he's doing is playing to the right (and shifting his views to the right, as on climate change) and grasping for attention. And I'm beginning to think we were wrong about him. Far from being a compromise candidate who could bridge the main Republican divide, he's looking more and more hopeless.

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