Tim Pawlenty mailed out a glossy mailer in Iowa this week. The mailer gushes (in beautiful color) about his time as governor of Minnesota. “Leadership is about results, not rhetoric,” it says.
Mr. Pawlenty must hope that slogan is true when it comes to nominating campaigns. After being essentially four years into a presidential campaign, he is polling at 5%. That 5% is despite the fact that he has been traveling to early primary states, raising money, meeting with campaign operatives, attending campaign events, and delivering two major policy speeches. He is still polling below Herman Cain, who has never been elected to anything, and Ron Paul, whose appeal is usually restricted to the libertarian wing of the Republican party.
I am trying (as he surely is too) to understand how someone who seems to be doing all the right things isn’t seeing any of the right results. A popular idea that’s been passed around is that he doesn’t have enough “pizzazz.” I don’t think it fits (and not just because I don’t like the word). It’s not that he is lacking vitality; I think he has plenty of things to say and has the heart to campaign, and his “Obamneycare” comment shows that he can set a heart racing if he wants to. The issue is that his ideas rarely introduce anything new to the discussion.
Pawlenty was the first candidate to lay out a full policy position for the economy. I give him props for coming out with an opinion, rather than dodging questions by saying that he will get back to the questioner after laying out my policy positions (as the rest of the candidates are doing). (I have always wondered how someone can purport to be a viable candidate for president without policies for months.) In that speech, though, he didn’t challenge conventional wisdom or introduce an interesting new opinion—except when he said that he would bring the United States to an incredible 5% growth rate. Pawlenty made the unexciting and universally-accepted claim that “markets work,” and that “Obama’s central planning doesn’t.” Also, he thinks American’s growth rate is too low.
These aren’t the sorts of views that are going to revolutionize the Republican party or win him very many votes. Since all the other candidates feel the same way, no one will support Pawlenty due to that particular opinion. He seems to be the lowest-common-denominator candidate: if you’re a Republican, you probably agree with what he has to say. You also probably like another candidate a lot more who has both Pawlenty’s basic conservatism as well as an additional appealing attribute that makes you care.
Can he escape the trap that he seems to have fallen into? He can keep saying things that everyone likes but no one loves, but I don’t see any compelling reason why it will start to work any better than it has up until now. “Not every good guy with acceptable views should be president,” people will think as they continue to support their top candidate. If he can say something a little bit interesting, then maybe people will pay attention to him and his campaign.
He has started to do that with his foreign policy speech, where he started to differentiate himself from candidates like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul, when he advocated greater U.S. involvement around the globe. He needs to start emphasizing these sorts of views that are a bit different from other candidates if he wants to stay relevant. In this particular election, though, the economy is likely going to be the most important issue for voters. Foreign policy is a start, but he will have to go beyond that—to the issues that move people and votes.
He will ultimately have to appeal to voters who would otherwise go for a relatively centrist candidate. His politics are “between” Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann—more conservative and more liberal, respectively—but he probably can’t get the voters that are currently supporting Bachmann; people are supporting Bachmann specifically because she is not the conventional Republican candidate, the type Pawlenty typifies. He can’t cast off his conventionalism, so he ought to start making greater overtures to the “Romney crowd” with which he has his only chance of success.
If he can’t make those overtures, he will go the way of many candidates before him. Fo instance, the 2008 election: did you remember that Chris Dodd ran for president? He was as standard a Democrat as one could find in a presidential campaign. He got 1 delegate compared to Obama’s 940 at the Iowa State Convention after capturing approximately 2% of the vote. He dropped out that night.
Pawlenty has the time to find his niche, but he has to move himself into it if he wants to accomplish anything more than a Dodd-like run. His flyers are right that there’s value in results rather than rhetoric. But while results might matter in the White House, it’s a little bit more complicated when it comes to getting there.