Tim Pawlenty is making it official today. For a candidate in the low single digits, he’s been given strong odds for winning the nomination by some analysts. George F. Will said a couple of weeks ago that the former Minnesota governor is one of three people who might be sworn in as president in 2013 — and the other possibilities include only one actual candidate, Barack Obama (the other was Mitch Daniels). The rapidly congealing conventional wisdom is that all the no-shows in the field benefit the former Minnesota governor.
There’s no doubt that Pawlenty has real strengths. He compiled an impressive record as governor, and is a fiscal, social, and national-security conservative. He has proven blue-state appeal and comes from a part of the country — the upper Midwest — where the GOP has growth potential. Yet he still hasn’t made much of an impression with voters. A common criticism is that he lacks gravity and pizzazz. One reason that there will now be such a push for other candidates to get in the race is that Pawlenty is still a pallid presence in the field. It’s possible to see how he gets the nomination on paper, but if it’s actually to happen, he will have to answer these five key questions.
1. Can he beat back Michele Bachmann?
For the mainstream media and pundits, the likely candidacy of Michele Bachmann is an entertaining sidelight. For Tim Pawlenty, it’s potentially a herald of doom.
Pawlenty is announcing his candidacy in Iowa. It’s no accident. A strong performance in the caucuses is key to his path to the nomination. Over the last 30 years, Republican nomination battles have had a predictable pattern — one candidate wins Iowa, another wins New Hampshire, and whoever of the two wins South Carolina gets the nomination. Pawlenty is, in theory, strongly positioned in Iowa. He’s from a neighboring state, he’s been working it on the ground, and as an evangelical, he has the right profile to appeal to social conservatives there. “He has real credibility on the social issues and a faith testimony that will resonate among the grassroots,” a prominent social conservative says.
Yet there’s potential trouble on the launching pad. Rep. Michele Bachmann is also from Minnesota and has a strong bond with social conservatives and tea-party backers. Her fundraising machine, even before it’s ginned up during a presidential run, is formidable. If she gets in, she could easily steal Pawlenty’s thunder in Iowa and deal a severe blow to his candidacy.
A Republican donor who supports Mitt Romney puts the most dire spin on it: “There is no plausible path to the GOP nomination for Pawlenty absent a win in Iowa. Thus, Bachmann poses an existential threat to T-Paw.” One analogy would be the way Pat Buchanan beat Phil Gramm in the Louisiana caucuses right at the outset of the 1996 nomination battle. Buchanan wasn’t much of a threat to win the nomination, but his victory effectively ended Gramm’s campaign, which had seemed the most formidable challenge to frontrunner Bob Dole. Mitt Romney has to be pulling for Bachmann to make the plunge and thrive among former Mike Huckabee voters in Iowa.
2. Can he find the right pitch in appealing to conservatives?
His speeches to conservatives have been notable for their groan-inducing panders. At CPAC in 2010, he led off with a tasteless joke about how conservatives needed to borrow a page from Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a nine iron and smash the window of big government in this country.” He finished that speech with an attack on brie-eating and Chablis-drinking. This year at CPAC, he wasn’t as cringe-worthy, although he did say at one point, “This ain’t about easy,” a line he’s repeated elsewhere. What is it about poor grammar that Pawlenty thinks is so appealing to the conservative grassroots?
The problem for Pawlenty is obvious. In appealing to conservatives, he potentially has competition from Bachmann, who rose to prominence as a bomb-thrower, and from Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, both of whom are talk-radio personalities (in addition to their other credentials). “The issue is going to be, in a field with so many charismatic characters,” the prominent social conservative says, “he’s got to figure out how to stand out and break out while remaining true to himself.”
Not only is Pawlenty naturally mild-mannered, he has spent eight years pushing conservative policy statewide in blue Minnesota, where inflammatory words would not help his cause. The current conservative mood, though, rewards rhetorical combativeness. Witness the recent boomlet for Donald Trump, who had no conservative credentials whatsoever but who was a famous loudmouth.
Back in 2008, Mitt Romney got a rap for inauthenticity by shifting rightward on the issues. Pawlenty runs a risk of making himself inauthentic by changing his affect. He’ll have to find a way to make himself interesting without betraying his natural persona (which may well be an asset in appealing to the middle in a general election). Is it possible to be nice and reasonable yet compelling? We’ll find out.
3. Will his history on cap-and-trade haunt him?
For a time, Governor Pawlenty was an enthusiastic supporter of cap-and-trade legislation to fight global warming. In 2007, he signed legislation setting goals for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions in Minnesota. “The nation has been asleep at the switch, but here in Minnesota we are kickstarting the future,” he said at the time. Pawlenty’s support for cap-and-trade was widely considered likely to help him get a spot on the 2008 presidential ticket with John McCain, whom he endorsed early in the primaries.
By 2009, it was clear that this position had become a political liability. Pawlenty’s strategy has been, first, to say that he did indeed support cap-and-trade, rather than attempt to blur the record; second, to say that it was a mistake; and third, to note that many other people made the same mistake. He clearly hopes that conservative primary voters will prefer his open admission of fault to Mitt Romney’s dogged defense of the health-care law he signed in Massachusetts.
What may help Pawlenty is that cap-and-trade appears to be dead for the foreseeable future. Democrats were unable to make headway with it when they had supermajorities in the Congress. Republicans are now dead-set against it, and control the House and have blocking power in the Senate.
On the other hand, the contrast to Romneycare can be spun to the Minnesotan’s disadvantage. If Republican voters come to believe that Pawlenty is not a conviction politician — and on this issue, at least, it is hard to make the case that he has been — he will be in trouble.
4. Can he appeal to blue-collar voters?
Pawlenty has blue-collar roots. It’s a fair bet he’s the only candidate in the Republican primaries who ever spent a weekend cleaning meat hooks, something a teenage Pawlenty did to help his father in one of his side jobs. He was the first in his family to attend college. He talks — more than any of the other current Republican candidates — about the decline of the “strong back” economy, and the struggles of voters without college degrees.
That background would be an asset in a general election, where Republicans always have to prove to voters that they are not in an upper-class bubble. It may also be an asset in the Republican primaries. The party has become increasingly dependent on the support of blue-collar voters.
These voters are not Mitt Romney’s natural constituency. It’s not just that Romney, like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, grew up rich. He also has a track record of appealing only to the affluent. Consider New Hampshire, where Romney is currently favored and needs to win. In 2008, he won among voters who made more than $150,000 a year but lost among those who made less.
Romney’s difficulty is Pawlenty’s opportunity. But there is no guarantee that he will make a connection with these voters. Unlike other Republicans, he acknowledges their long-running economic difficulties — and that’s a start. But like them, he offers no solutions to match the scale of the problem.
From Reagan onward, Republicans have used tax policy to signal their support for voters with low to middling incomes who aspire to get ahead. In recent years, however, Republican tax policy has focused almost exclusively on reducing taxes on capital and corporate income. A more balanced approach to tax reform would be a natural fit for Pawlenty.
5. Will foreign policy matter?
Pawlenty seems to be the most hawkish of the top three candidates. He has called for a no-fly zone and the use of special forces to depose Qaddafi — and criticized Obama for deferring to the U.N. (“that pathetic organization”). He wants to take a stronger stand against the Assad regime in Syria as well, beginning with the recall of our ambassador. At CPAC earlier this year, he said of the Obama administration’s policies, “We undermine Israel, the U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic, and Colombia, among other friends. Meanwhile, we appease Iran, Russia, and adversaries in the Middle East, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.” He has gone out of his way to argue against relying on cuts to the defense budget to solve our fiscal problems.
Huntsman seems to favor a more cautious foreign policy, and Romney a more trade-driven one. Pawlenty is almost alone in his advocacy of a Bush-style policy of promoting liberty abroad. That difference hasn’t come to the forefront — even the conservative foreign-policy intellectuals his position would please seem largely unaware of it — but it raises a series of questions.
How hawkish are conservative primary voters? Were they committed to Bush because of the Iraq and Afghan wars, or vice-versa? Governors Daniels and Barbour, when they were considering running, seemed to be betting that Republican voters were tired of spending blood and treasure abroad. Pawlenty is betting the other way.
But it’s also not clear that primary voters will ever concentrate on foreign-policy questions. They didn’t in 2008, which was the first open contest for the Republican nomination since September 11. And Pawlenty has almost no foreign-policy experience, which may not make him a compelling spokesman for his point of view.
So far, Governor Pawlenty has had a great spring. His name recognition has slowly risen, candidates who could eclipse him as rivals to Romney have bowed out, and he has gotten some favorable press. But his rise is about to bring him much more scrutiny, from the press, from voters, and from other presidential candidates, than he has ever faced before. With Iowa’s straw poll coming in three months, Governor Pawlenty is going to have to start answering questions — the ones we’ve raised, and the ones they will — fast.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor, and Rich Lowry is editor, of National Review.