The Corner

T-Paw We Hardly Knew Ye

In the Morning Jolt (you subscribe, right?) Jim Geraghty takes a look at my what-might-have-been-Pawlenty column and scoffs. Pawlenty never had a chance he says and today’s anybody but Mitt crowd isn’t a coherent whole. He writes:


But right now, the “anybody but Mitt” crowd to me looks like a mix of Perry fans who can’t believe any conservative could seriously support those jokers Cain and Bachmann, Cain fans who can’t believe anybody could back that loser Perry and that loon Bachmann, Bachmann fans who can’t believe everybody’s jumped off the bandwagon of the one true conservative fighter, Newt fans who can’t believe everybody makes such a big deal about his marital difficulties, and so on. I’m not sure anybody has much of a second choice right now, much less a potential consensus choice. I exaggerate slightly, but right now, it doesn’t seem as if many primary voters see many of the options as “pretty good.” The field is simply “their guy” versus a bunch of laughingstocks who deserve to be booed off the stage.

My theory is that in the “on demand” era, with movies and television shows available on demand, news sites updated 24/7, our iPods and MP3 players playing only the music we want, our Facebook pages giving us updates from just the friends we want, etc., a certain segment of the public has now become conditioned to expect the “on demand” candidate. They want someone who holds their position on Obamacare AND illegal immigration AND climate change AND TARP AND abortion AND every other significant issue, and when a potential Republican president deviates from it, they toss him into the “reject” pile.

Maybe he’s right, though I’m more than a bit dubious that the conservative base of the GOP has so internalized the on-demand lifestyles symbolized by iPods and MP3 players.

It seems to me that you could have this exact dynamic in the late 1960s or early 1970s when we were all being force-fed by Walter Cronkite and 8-track tapes were still in wide circulation. Essentially, it’s a weak field and the frontrunner is less than entirely pleasing to the base of the GOP. Also,  all of the candidates have their own independent fan base who think that the rest of the field is much worse than their guy (or gal). That’s happened before. Indeed, back in the days of brokered conventions, it happened every four years.

I agree with a lot of folks that Pawlenty’s campaign had many, many significant problems. That’s why I write: “Tactically, Pawlenty’s mistakes are too numerous to count. But strategically, Pawlenty had the right idea: Be the most electable candidate to the right of Romney.”

But Jim says, “I don’t think we can argue that [Pawlenty] really didn’t get a chance to shine, or enough time in the debates, or that somehow Republicans didn’t take a good enough look at him.”

I’m just not so sure. Had a majority of the GOP, or even the Iowa GOP, really paid that much attention as of mid-August 2010? What if Pawlenty had eschewed the macho-man stuff and instead run a George Costanza “by Mennen” strategy? You may recall an old episode of Seinfeld (I guess they’re all old now) where George Costanza tries to insinuate himself in a woman’s life the way a jingle gets stuck in your head (in this case the old tagline “By Mennen”). What if Pawlenty committed himself to quietly building an “everyone’s second choice” candidacy? What if he simply hung back long enough to demonstrate he was the least undesirable candidate in the field? As I say in the column, few people say vanilla is their favorite, but nobody hates vanilla either. What if he’d quietly lived off the land in Iowa the way Jimmy Carter did? What if he hadn’t elevated Michele Bachmann? Yes, those are a lot of what-ifs.

I should say this isn’t an argument for Pawlenty, never mind an endorsement. My larger point wasn’t to lionize Pawlenty as a blown opportunity. Rather, it was simply to illustrate how messed up the field is now that Pawlenty is starting to look pretty good.

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