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Pawlenty’s Humble Beginnings


Mitch Daniels is out, but, as expected, Tim Pawlenty is in. So far, he has been talking tough — although his response to Paul Ryan’s House budget a few months ago was to jam his hands in his pockets, shuffle his feet a little, and then point and yell, “Look over there, at the debt ceiling!” (Also, I am secretly worried that Pawlenty’s ex-mullet will now write a tell-all book about him.)

And while his introductory video is effective at positioning himself as a “truth teller,” it contains one of my foremost pet peeves in political commercials: the “I’m from humble beginnings” talking point.

These days, it’s almost a requirement in a campaign. You have to convince voters that when you were growing up, all your parents could afford at McDonald’s was a large napkin and a small straw. Playing up your blue-collar roots gives you an instant link to the working folks of the world. Think back to how many times multimillionaire trial lawyer John Edwards bragged that he was the “son of a mill worker.” (This is in stark contrast to what Edwards’s kids say about him, which is, “What does he look like again?”)

In his ad, Pawlenty brags that he grew up in a “blue-collar town,” that his dad was a truck driver, and that he was the first in his family to go to college. All great for him — but is it really relevant to anything?

Of course, it’s true that there are things to be admired in coming from humble beginnings. It teaches some people to value simple pleasures, and it gives them a sense of what manual labor is really like.

But let’s face it — among people who grow up in trailer parks, the number who end up taking paternity tests on the Maury Povich Show outstrips congressmen by about 1.2 million to one. Yet voters seem to associate growing up poor as evidence of character and accomplishment.

I, for one, don’t really care about a candidate’s life story. I care what’s in his or her future. If a rich kid goes to really great schools, takes advantage of learning from the best teachers, and emerges a bright and energetic adult, that’s a thing to be admired. Yet you never see a campaign ad that begins with the words, “I overcame growing up rich . . .”

Should we discount Paul Ryan because his family was fairly well off? Did Mitch Daniels drop out of the presidential race because his father was an executive at a pharmaceutical company? Is Al Gore’s opulent upbringing more objectionable than, say, everything he’s done since then?

Of course, the answer is no. In fact, the inverse is true. When I drive by a house with a car up on blocks in the front yard, it doesn’t compel me to walk up to the guy in the tank top on the front porch, hand him my wallet, and trust him to spend my money wisely.

Incidentally, my second most intense campaign-commercial pet peeve is the obligatory shot of the candidate wearing a hard hat and safety goggles, indicating his solidarity with factory workers. It seems everyone loves factory jobs except people who actually work in factories. I used to work on an assembly line, and let’s face it — the people in my factory didn’t exactly feel that they worked there because they had beaten the odds.

Instead of promising more factory jobs, candidates should ditch the goofy goggles and pledge to create jobs people actually want. I vow to vote for any politician who promises to bring more video-game-tester or international-jewel-thief jobs to my district.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.


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