Monday, May 23, 2011

Tim Pawlenty launches 2012 presidential campaign with self-aggrandizing hyperbole

Okay, let's get back to some blogging. I ended up taking most of the long (for us Canadians) weekend off, enjoying some nice weather and preferring not to spend much time in front of the computer.

So... what did I miss?

I'll have a lot more to come tomorrow, but for now let me just take note of what Tim Pawlenty said today in Iowa, where he formally launched his 2012 presidential campaign:

"Politicians are often afraid that if they're too honest, they might lose an election," the former Minnesota governor told a town hall here on a terrace of the State Historical Building. "I'm afraid that in 2012, if we're not honest enough, we may lose our country."

This is the sort of answer you give in a job interview when you're asked what your biggest weakness is. Of course you don't tell the interviewer what your real weaknesses are, you say something about how you're a perfectionist, or some such bullshit. 

In this case, Pawlenty is selling himself as "too honest." Which of course he means as the highest compliment at a time when politicians, as usual, are held in low regard, generally regarded as a bunch of lying scum who don't give a damn about you and your problems.

And to that he's adding the apocalyptic language that has become a staple of Republican rhetoric ever since Obama won the White House -- though they tend to use it whenever the Democrats are in power, whenever they need to scare the living daylights out of voters so as to terrify them into voting Republican.

Because, really, "we may lose our country"? What sort of nonsense is that? Well, it's not so much directed at Obama for being some sort of fascist or socialist (or whatever), it's more about the budget and the economy generally, and here Pawlenty seems to be embracing Paul Ryan (and the new Republican orthodoxy) though with a somewhat softer touch than is usually the case with conservatives and by framing it, self-aggrandizingly, as courageous honesty.

Given the weakness of the Republican field and Mitt Romney's reputation as a shameless opportunist who is anything but a genuine conservative, Pawlenty might just pull it off. He doesn't have a difficult Senate record to defend, he's seen as a solid midwesterner (if also rather dull and uninspiring), and he's positioning himself as a sufficiently acceptable conservative to win not just Tea Partiers but also social conservatives (particularly with Huckabee not running) and possibly also the somewhat more moderate party establishment (particularly with Daniels not running).

So, yes, he may well be the frontrunner -- if you assume that Romney just won't catch on. And if he can get past Romney, or if Romney just falls back, his main rival could turn out to be Michele Bachmann, who could energize the right but alienate everyone else to the point where Pawlenty becomes the "sane" alternative who picks up the support of the party's main backers.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What of his talk of honesty? Is he truly the candidate of honesty?

To be fair, coming out against ethanol subsidies, particularly in Iowa, is admirable, though that's more not so much honesty as sound public policy. Coming out against "bailouts, handouts, and carve outs" generally, and particularly with respect to Wall Street, may or may not be similarly admirable, though it's easier to say Wall Street shouldn't have been bailed out when you didn't have to make any tough decisions yourself. Would he really have opposed the bailouts had he been president at the time and been faced with the breakdown of the entire credit market? Yes, he espouses a sort of right-wing free-market populism today, but isn't he doing that just to appeal to Republican primary voters? How courageous is it to say what voters want to hear? It isn't -- and it isn't honest either. His motives are transparent.

We saw this at that Republican debate in South Carolina a while back. Pawlenty was asked about his past support for a cap-and-trade system to address climate change. He said he used to support such a system, and to agree with the need to combat climate change, but that he no longer does. He'd made a mistake, he admitted (and apologized), and he framed this as being honest. But was he really being honest or was he just saying what he had to say to get anywhere in today's Republican Party, a party that used to support cap and trade but that now rejects climate science altogether? Similarly, is he really a hardcore social conservative or is he just an opportunist, much like Romney, trying to appeal to the party's right-wing base?

Look, there's nothing new here. Politicians do this all the time, we know that, but it's especially true among Republicans, who can only get anywhere on the national scene if they campaign to the right by appealing to the grassroots. Even McCain had to do this in '08. Were he to win the nomination, Pawlenty would quickly move back towards the center, of course -- and good luck to any Republican who challenges Wall Street -- but for now he's got to present himself as sufficiently conservative to win right-wing primary votes, as well as to be taken seriously by the right-wing media.

That's what his "honesty" is all about.

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