Republican presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty: “All things to all men”

Posted on April 3, 2011


2012 Republican presidential hopeful, Tim Pawlenty.

On Tuesday, March 22, Vanderbilt University was fortunate enough get the first crack at the first Republican to declare (or at least “explore”) his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election.  Just days after launching his presidential “exploratory committee”, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty debated Christina Romer, once an economic advisor of the Obama White House, at Langford Auditorium during Vanderbilt’s annual Impact Symposium.

It should first be noted that Vanderbilt, in the past, has typically recorded prominent speaker events like this one and posted the videos online for public viewing.  With a quick search on YouTube, one can easily find videos of various Vanderbilt Impact speakers from years past, including one from just last year of Mitt Romney, who similarly will be a heavy-hitter in the Republican presidential primaries.  However, at the behest of Mr. Pawlenty, this particular event was not recorded.  According to Princine Lewis of Vanderbilt News, Christina Romer gave the go-ahead on a recording, but Pawlenty made sure to disallow it.  Ms. Lewis speculated that he likely did so due to his presidential candidacy.

This makes sense superficially, but how do we explain Pawlenty’s refusal to be videotaped considering that Romney, in a similar situation, embraced the opportunity?  It is easy to speculate that Pawlenty was more apt than Romney to be caught in a difficult position during his appearance, as he was on stage with a moderator (Ben Smith of Politico) and a liberal counterpart (Romer), whereas Romney had the luxury of delivering a 60-minute, unchallenged monologue.  Certainly, Pawlenty may have been afraid of becoming a victim of the “hit-journalism” phenomenon that has become so prevalent today with the spread of tech-media:  time after time we see a public figure’s credibility destroyed by a few words taken out of context that end up going viral on the internet.  But after watching Pawlenty speak at the Symposium and listening to what he’s had to say in his first few weeks in the spotlight, the reason for his camera-shyness has become quite clear: he simply is not camera-ready.

One would assume that the first Republican out of the gate would take advantage of his primacy to define his policy stances in aggressive fashion before letting others define them for him.  After all, according to a recent Gallup poll, only 40% of Republican voters know his name and only 32% feel they know enough about him to make a judgement on him.  But, instead, Pawlenty seems to prefer to speak in very general terms about the problems the country is facing.  In those three months since he left office, one would think that he took the time to become amply familiar with all the fine points of the nation’s most pressing issues.  Even if he did educate himself on the issues, he appears content not to reveal it and instead to begin his campaign by testing the waters with voters on certain subjects while planning to eventually assume the most popular Republican stances on those issues down the road.  For the time being, he is, as the Economist put it in a recent issue, “All things to all men.”

Typically, when a candidate first enters a race, he focuses on talking to voters about valence issues, or issues that almost everyone, regardless of party, agrees on (i.e., education is important, the deficit is a problem, and jobs are good).  And, unsurprisingly, in his Bruckheimer-esque inaugural web advertisement from January, Pawlenty chose to highlight his belief in American Exceptionalism.   Recently, in his first television ad, Mr. Pawlenty made sure not to specify his party affiliation or address any polarizing issues, rather he focused on jobs, limited government, and “restoring America”.

But Pawlenty seems to want to take to this strategy of concentrating on valence issues to a demagogic extreme.  During the debate at Vanderbilt, Pawlenty spoke to at great length about “Sam’s Club Republicans”, a term he coined himself referring to heartland, “middle-class” Americans who purchase food and goods in bulk at places like Sam’s Club and Costco to save money.  He pointed out that these types of people, who make up a large part of the electorate, are primarily concerned with being able to afford to put food on the table and put gas in their cars (as though that isn’t a concern of pretty much every American today, regardless of party or superstore membership).  Interestingly, he did not say much about what he would do to help these people as president, rather he simply acknowledged their existence.  Such pandering, he probably figured, just may have been enough to win over their vote if they happened to be in the audience.

At times during the debate, Pawlenty played so dumb regarding national matters that one had to wonder if he even knew prior to that night that there were issues outside of Minnesota state politics.  When this columnist asked him how cutting funding for PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts would stimulate the economy more so than discussing long-term entitlement reform while keeping spending where it is, he stated that he was “not an economist” but that he knew we could not “continue spending more than we bring in.”  This statement brought a rousing applause from the Sam’s Club Republicans in the auditorium, but it clearly did not address the main point of the question: how does cutting a little spending now as opposed to a lot of spending over the next few decades create a better business atmosphere for the private sector?   The thing is, there are plenty of better opposing arguments on the right that Pawlenty could have referred to, but instead he went with the short, sweet, and ignorant response that he knew would promptly spur an ovation.  Notice that he also made sure to mention his lack of economic knowledge so as to make sure to establish himself in the eyes of potential voters as an American everyman as opposed to “an economist” (i.e. an elitist).

This week, to officially solidify his status as a Republican populist, Tim Pawlenty apologized for supporting cap-and-trade as a solution to climate change.  Whereas Pawlenty once said in a commercial for the Environomental Defense Fund, “Come on Congress. Let’s get moving. Cap greenhouse gas pollution now,” he has now apologized for those remarks and acknowledged that he actually thinks “cap-and-trade would be a ham-fisted, unhelpful, damaging thing to the economy.”  Mr. Pawlenty most likely figured it would be quite awkward to be the only Republican in the primary debates talking about trading carbon credits while everyone else falls somewhere in between “cap-and-trade will bring another Great Depression” and “only Jesus can decide when the world ends”.

This populist strategy will prove beneficial for Pawlenty in the short-run, but it will cost him the nomination in the long-run.  In reality, the Republican party, whether it wants to admit to it or not, is split into three factions: Tea-Party conservatives, corporate conservatives, and moderate conservatives.  Most candidates will try to ride the fence in between these sects, but not all of them will have the record or political savvy to pull it off.  Eventually, beyond valence issues, Republican voters will want very direct answers to certain questions and, on certain issues, there is no answer that will please all voters.  For instance, under the tab “Economy” on the “Issues” section of Pawlenty’s website, there is plenty of talk about slashing spending and reforming entitlements, but nothing regarding Wall-Street reform.  However, at the Vanderbilt debate, one economics major asked Mr. Pawlenty if, as president, he would work to break up the “Too-Big-to-Fail” banks.  The governor, as usual, gave a very broad answer, but he did say that banks should be punished for taking excessive and damaging risks and that the taxpayer should not be forced to foot the bill for big bank bailouts like we saw in 2008.  This drew another rousing applause from the Sam’s Club faithful, but Christina Romer pointed out that the Democrats tried to do just that with the Dodd-Frank bill and were mostly thwarted in their efforts by the Republicans.  If Pawlenty were to go a step further and outline a specific policy that renders AIG and Goldmann Sachs more accountable for their precarious business doings, he could lose a lot of corporate campaign money.  In matters of demogoguery, the devil is always in the details.

Of course, the primary winner could very well be a candidate that skillfully connects the Tea Party to Corporate Republicanism.  After all, George W. Bush was able to rally Evangelical America to the polls while also winning over the Corporate side of the GOP by lowering the top tax rate by almost 5%.  But Bush was a bit more convincing in his various roles: he was able to wear his cowboy boots and his past DUI record as badges of American commonness, while simultaneously delivering to the corporations whatever policies they lobbied for.  For 2012, for one candidate to win over the various camps under the Republican tent, actions will speak louder than words.

Posted in: 2012 Election