President Tim?

by Michael Walsh

I’m a great believer is knowing what the other side is up to, how it’s seeing the world, and especially how it sees us, so let me recommend to you this splendid takeout on Tim Pawlenty by one of America’s finest political reporters (and a good friend), Walter Shapiro, now a contributing editor for The New Republic. It’s called “The Tragedy of Tim Pawlenty.” 

If presidential politics were a rational enterprise governed by flow charts and PowerPoints, then Pawlenty—a competent, conservative former governor—would be in serious contention right now, perhaps a few strides off the pace as the GOP race heads into its first turn. But, instead, less than a month before the August 13 Iowa Straw Poll, Pawlenty finds himself struggling to gain his footing. Poll numbers mired in the single digits, a soporific debate performance in New Hampshire, anemic fund-raising—all have contributed to a media verdict that Pawlenty is nearly finished before he has really begun.

This storyline has clearly been over-hyped: With a weak GOP field, it is a mistake to write off Pawlenty more than six months before the Iowa caucuses. Yet it is also undeniable that the former Minnesota governor is in serious trouble. After a month on the Pawlenty beat—during which I spent time on the road with him in New Hampshire, toured his blue-collar hometown of South St. Paul, and delved into his Minnesota record—I came to appreciate the tragedy of his situation. 

It’s essentially the tale of good-man, wrong-time, and I agree with that assessment. To defeat Barack Obama, the Republicans need a warrior, not a Goo-goo administrator — the kind the old Tammany Hall Democrats used to have for lunch along with oysters and champagne back in the Wigwam’s glory days.

The coming campaign is going to be the dirtiest on record, as Obama attempts to re-run “hopenchange,” by daring his opponent to stake out a position (we see this already in the debt-ceiling negotiations) and then demonizing him. The president has no intention of defending any turf; with the help of the media he’ll make the Mess in Washington the Republicans’ fault and then break out the old white horse routine. Meanwhile:

. . . Pawlenty comes across as lacking a sharply defined personality. People who know him bristle at the notion of a charisma deficit, although they are maddeningly short on specifics… There is something overly cautious, overly thought-out about the way he presents himself. Every time Pawlenty delivers an attack line, you can picture the staff meetings that led up to it. 

Still, as those who counted out McCain early learned, it ain’t over til it’s over.

And yet presidential politics are unpredictable—and redemption and rebirth are common. John Kerry and John McCain were both struggling at this point in 2003 and 2007. And so, it seems premature to write off Pawlenty. Especially since he has a formidable asset that can help him survive the demolition derby that is the Iowa Straw Poll: Leaving nothing to chance, Tim Pawlenty—the striver from South St. Paul, the nit-picker, the war-gamer, the micromanager—still boasts the best political organization in Iowa.

Will that be enough to stop Bachmann? I doubt it.