‘Pawlenty’s attacks get more pointed,” announced a headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He’s betting sharper rhetoric will spring him from GOP pack,” clarified the subhead.
Did the former Minnesota Republican governor call the president a Muslim? A socialist? Nope. He said the country’s mounting debt was a “pile of poo.” Clearly, the guy running the bleep button for the GOP-primary debates isn’t worried about Tim Pawlenty.
In fairness, some of his other comments have been a bit more pointed, but Pawlenty’s problem remains: He’s boring. He’s so boring he could have replaced James Franco at the Oscars without making the awards any more interesting. And he’s unknown. It is very difficult for dull candidates to become well-known candidates while remaining dull. Hence Pawlenty’s audacity of “poo.”
Pawlenty’s not alone. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, another potential GOP presidential contender, has what George Will calls “the low-key charisma of competence.”
Daniels and Pawlenty (and perhaps Mitt Romney, depending on which persona he assumes this week) represent one front in what is shaping up to be the great schism within the GOP. Call it the battle of the fighters vs. the fixers. The fighters, best represented by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee, are keen to tap into the energy and passion of the “tea partiers.” Most have Fox News contracts. (Full disclosure: I’ve got one too, but I’m biding my time for 2028.) And they have honed their rhetoric. They’re expert bomb-throwers, not ham-fisted poo-flingers.
Meanwhile, the fixers — mostly governors — claim to be more hands-on. They’re doing the hard and unglamorous work under the hood of government, and they are more concerned with injecting some sobriety into the climate of fiscal crapulence we’ve seen in recent years.
Of course, labels invite complaints. Gingrich, head of something called American Solutions, would no doubt object that he too is a “fixer.” And Daniels, a solid Reaganite conservative who ended collective bargaining for government workers six years ago (when few of us had ever heard of future Wisconsin governor Scott Walker), can make a plausible claim that he is a real fighter.
And that’s what’s interesting about the divide: It is as much stylistic as it is substantive. To be sure, the debate will be pigeonholed into more familiar terms: social conservatives vs. moderates, RINOs vs. purists, outsiders vs. the inside-the-Beltway crowd. But all of these labels have serious deficiencies. For instance, Gingrich’s tenure inside the Beltway stretches two decades, but he is rhetorically far less of an establishment type than Pawlenty.
The similarities between the Republicans of 2012 and the Democrats of 2004 will only grow between now and Election Day. In 2004, the Democrats became obsessed with what left-wing bloggers called “fighting Dems” — candidates who didn’t hold back their disdain for George W. Bush and the GOP. Howard Dean was their man, and for more than a year Dean was way ahead in the polls and what might be called the media primary. But when “Deaniacs” failed to deliver actual victories, the panicked party lurched to John Kerry, who married Ted Kennedy’s politics with Michael Dukakis’s charm. Exit polls showed that Democrats opted for Kerry because they thought he would be the most electable candidate in the general election, not because they liked him.
Normally, the internal dynamics of the GOP tend to be very different from those of the Democratic party, but the Tea Party might serve as a version of the left-wing “netroots,” not only in terms of funding and organizational passion but also in its hunger for “fighting Republicans” who give no quarter. The challenge for the GOP is to avoid a replay of the Democrats in ’04, which means finding a candidate who is both a fighter and a fixer.
Right now the only politician who has succeeded in fusing the hunger for substance and style is New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and he’s not running. Unless that changes, you can expect a lot more poo-flinging between now and 2012.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.