Dan Balz's Take
Pawlenty moves raise questions
By Dan Balz
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is widely regarded as one of the Republican Party's rising national leaders. The runner-up to Sarah Palin to be John McCain's vice presidential running mate, he is a conservative whose blue-collar roots, amiable personality and two terms as governor of a traditionally Democratic state would seem to make him a natural to help his party attract the kind of swing voters who are always fought over in presidential elections.
But the Pawlenty who has stepped onto the national stage in recent months has said and done things that have other Republicans wondering about his instincts and his sure-footedness as a prospective 2012 presidential candidate. Pawlenty could learn from the earlier mistakes of one of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Last week, during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, Pawlenty was asked repeatedly whether he welcomed Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to vote for the Senate Finance Committee health care bill, in the GOP. At a time when some conservatives are insisting on purity within the ranks and others say the party must truly be a big tent, Pawlenty ducked the question. He hemmed and hawed, but couldn't bring himself to say "yes" -- suggesting that he believed "no."
He now calls his responses "an unforced error" and an "inartfully" stated answer. Of course he meant "yes," he now insists. "While we don't agree on everything, of course she is welcome in the party," he said in a telephone interview. "That's what I should have said."
His effort to quickly clean up the mess, which included a call to Snowe, helped to make amends. But the misstep was not the first questionable decision by Pawlenty, which has Republican strategists wondering about him.
Last September, he jumped into the controversy over President Obama's speech to school children, questioning the wisdom of having the president speak to students in a way that provided some cover to those claiming the presidential talk was an overtly political move designed to indoctrinate young people.
In another interview on MSNBC, he appeared reluctant to get on the wrong side of those who claimed there were "death panels" in some versions of the health care legislation on Capitol Hill. He eventually acknowledged there were no such panels but said the concerns of those believed so were justifiable. On environmental issues, Politifact.com concluded that he has flip-flopped on climate change legislation, which he now opposes.
Most recently, he endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd congressional district, but he acted only after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin had turned the special election into an intraparty test of strength.
Pawlenty said there is no deliberate effort to move to the right. "In general, I've governed as a conservative in Minnesota, so being conservative isn't like a new development or a revelation," he said.
He said he raised doubts about Obama's speech to schoolchildren because "I was just echoing what a well regarded, nonpartisan group of educators [the Minnesota Association of School Boards] was saying." On New York 23, he said, he objected to the fact that Scozzafava was hand-picked by local leaders. He also said he concluded her views put her far outside the mainstream of Republican doctrine.
"There is certainly room in the party and room in the movement for all kinds of ideas and principles and issue positions," he said, "but in general we have to be rowing in the same direction as a team and I don't think she met that standard."
Pawlenty, who has never been known as red-meat political orator, acknowledged that has been particularly rough in his criticism of Obama this year but offered no regrets on that front. "I don't think this is a time to mince words," he said.
Pawlenty earlier decided not to seek a third term as governor. He has established a political action committee and assembled a team of advisers who are among the best in the party, with roots in Iowa, an understanding of new technology and a breadth of knowledge on the intersection of politics and policy.
The question is whether he and his team have been spooked by the influence of the most conservative wing of his party in presidential nominating politics. His advisers say no. "These are all unique circumstances in time and they don't represent a strategic or calibrated effort to move to the right," said one adviser.
Still, there is something Romneyesque in all this. Four years ago, Romney lurched to the right in preparation for his presidential candidacy. He did it on social issues, where his prior support for abortion and gay rights left him vulnerable on his right flank. Pawlenty has a consistent record of opposition to abortion and gay marriage. In his case, he appears to be catering to the conservative, populist anger on the right, which is challenging the party establishment and attacking Obama in sometimes extreme language.
The real risk for Pawlenty, as Romney learned in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign, is losing his true voice and his authenticity. Romney spent so much time trying to reposition himself and picking narrow tactical fights with his rivals that the qualities that might have made him a more attractive candidate were lost in the smoke. But once a candidate starts down that road, it can be hard to pull back.
This year, Romney has generally kept a lower profile. The view among strategists is that Romney has been shrewd in staying out of these flare-ups and wise to try to focus on big-picture issues of national security and the economy when he raises his profile. Pawlenty, being less known nationally and looking to attract attention to himself, has been reluctant to stay quiet.
Pawlenty defends his decisions to get involved in these battles, saying that as he winds down his governorship he intends to do what he can to shape the party and help elect more Republicans. But he also said he still believes the Republican Party must be more inclusive. "It's not about abandoning our principles or diluting our principles or acting like Democrats," he said. "It's about trying to get independents and Democrats to join our cause."
That's the kind of politician Pawlenty has been up to now. The question is whether, at a time of turmoil within the Republican Party and with a need to raise his own profile, he can prepare himself for a possible presidential campaign without sacrificing the best qualities that brought him to this point in his career.
Posted at 10:08 AM ET on Nov 11, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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