Nice but tough -- Tim Pawlenty at the National Press Club
The "too nice" rap on Tim Pawlenty and the lack of a clear campaign theme have been the most discussed shortcomings of the potential Pawlenty 2012 campaign. To some degree, he addressed both of those at a speech at the National Press Club.
You notice Pawlenty's height first. He's considerably taller than most people in a large room. If you buy the adage that taller candidates have an advantage, that's one asset for him.
He also has developed a more animated and forceful speaking style. He gave a longish speech with no script or notes. He employed parallel sentence structure to build momentum. Failed schools are "socially, morally, economically" unworkable, for example. And he's learned to inject some levity as well. He said, "Just because we follow Greece in democracy does not mean we need to follow Greece into bankruptcy." His emphasis on tough decisions he made as governor (e.g. cutting spending, reforming health care) carried the message that he's no pushover. When wrapping up, he acknowledged the tough work ahead to address our economic problems. He said, "It's not about 'easy.'"
On the message side of things, the Pawlenty approach seems to be to weave his personal life experience into policy. He spoke about the hardship in the blue-collar, meat-packing town in which he grew up. The lesson from that, he said, is that "strong-back jobs" are going away. Now you need to "have education and skills to compete in this economy. If not, you are going to be marginalized." He translated that into "Life is pretty hard if you don't have a job," which in turn should lead us to policies which stimulate job growth, investment, and risk taking.
Similarly on the debt, he said simply, "We can't spend more than we have." He talked about average Americans in big box discount stores. "You see people don't have a lot of money but they are looking for the best value they can get." You see, he explained, when you spend your own money you make different choices. He made an analogy. If there is a host bar, people indulge since they are getting something for free. You "see a very different behavior" when you're getting something for nothing than when, in this contrasting example, you have to pay for your own at a cash bar. The lesson, especially in health care, is that consumers must be in charge of the dollars they spend."
Likewise on education (when he gave a shout out to Michele Rhee, "She was bold, she was courageous, she spoke truth to power, and they kicked her out!") and foreign policy (e.g. project strength not weakness, don't have daylight between yourself and allies like Israel) he tried to connect the personal to the policy. To a large degree, it worked well.
In the Q & A that followed, he praised the president's speech yesterday, noting that in providing empathy, unity and hope, Obama did a "fine" job. In a question about Ronald Reagan's successful presidency, there was perhaps an indirect hit on Sarah Palin. Pawlenty said that Reagan was "definitely a movement conservative," but he was also, "hopeful, optimistic and civil." Hmm. But when asked directly about Palin, he was careful and polite. Her influence on the GOP is "large," she's a "remarkable leader" and she's been unfairly dinged for a "different [life] experience" (i.e. not going to an Ivy League school). And in a final note of toughness, he reiterated that he is for free trade, but "he's not for being a chump."
Pawlenty is going to have to sell the conservative electorate on his record (which is strong), his appeal to independents (he won twice in a blue state), and his fidelity to conservative values. (Asked about don't ask, don't tell, he said he didn't support the repeal because the Pentagon survey showed that combat troops were heavily opposed to it.) His decision to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference despite the boycotters is intended to make the point: He's a unifier and a movement conservative, not someone fanning the flames of divisiveness.
He may have to run against the biggest political celebrity (Palin) as well as the best-funded and organized Republican (Romney), but he showed that he has some assets of his own. Whether they are enough is yet to be determined.
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