The first decision was a mistake: Pawlenty should have let other candidates flay Romney, and then added weight to their critique. But running away from the criticism once he had made it was a disaster. It made him seem too weak to take on Romney, and, by extension, Obama. The incident also highlighted some fundamental flaws of Pawlenty’s campaign. Pawlenty is a thoughtful conservative running as a caricature of a tea partier, in part because of an exaggerated concern, fueled by the coverage of his campaign, that he is too dull. “Obamneycare” was a borderline-juvenile taunt; Pawlenty would not have felt awkward delivering a more serious critique — e.g., “I think Romney went down the wrong path on health care” — to Romney’s face.
Facing criticism after the debate for cowardice, Pawlenty then, absurdly, called Romney a “co-conspirator” with Obama on health care — as though Romney had consciously attempted to make it easier to pass the national health-care law. If Pawlenty had run as himself, he could have spared himself all this trouble. He has made it less likely that he will ever be in a position to take down Romney. Now Pawlenty is having to take shots at Bachmann, Romney, and Obama in order to stay in the game.
Romney, on the other hand, has the luxury of just taking on Obama. His record on health care is still a serious potential vulnerability, but so long as no alternative candidate takes flight, it may not matter. It seems pretty clear that Romney’s advisers think that Bachmann cannot defeat him but can prevent anyone who can from emerging as the anyone-but-Romney candidate. Pawlenty’s decline and Bachmann’s rise are thus both very good pieces of news for him — as is the continuing weakness of the economy, which makes him appear a safer bet for the general election.
The Republican field is not weak in the sense that its members are sure losers in a general election: Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman all meet the criteria to win in November 2012. They have executive experience, they come across as sensible, and they have not taken any sure-loser positions. But nobody is dominating the primaries, and that vacuum is tempting Perry into the race. If he runs, he could be a formidable candidate: a big-state governor with a nearly impeccably conservative record and tea-party cred. Again, though, he would be running to the right of anyone who has won the nomination in the last 26 years. As for his chances in the general election: Many conservatives believe that a blunt, unapologetic, and uncompromised conservatism is just what the nation is waiting to support next fall. But Perry’s loose talk about Texan secession from the Union, his sponsorship as governor of a Christian day of prayer for the nation this August, and his general refusal to acknowledge that any aspect of contemporary conservatism might need modification before the electorate as a whole will embrace it, could just as easily prove fatal.
If Perry does not run, his toying with the idea will merely have helped Romney a little bit more by making it that much harder for a feasible alternative to gain momentum. In recent weeks, Romney has gone from being a weak frontrunner to being the frontrunner, period. But the party is contemplating a marriage of convenience, not of love. Romney knows better than most how fleeting these perceptions of inevitability can be. In late 2007, six weeks or so before the Iowa caucuses, a very well plugged-in Republican — I will violate protocol to say that he was the highest Republican source in the land — lamented that Romney was likely to win both Iowa and New Hampshire and thus get the nomination without ever being seriously tested. At the time it was what many observers predicted. Romney ended up winning neither.