Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nothing Better Than The Real Thing

Now that the dust of the results of the Ames straw poll and Tim Pawlenty’s subsequent withdrawal from the campaign have cleared, there’s a chance to step back and analysis what happened and why. The fact that Tim Pawlenty will not be the 2012 Republican nominee for president is not shocking, but that speed at which his campaign to secure that nomination unraveled is. I’ve mentioned before that it was a bit surreal for me to see Pawlenty and then Michele Bachmann emerge as viable contenders to sit in the Oval Office. Someone that I’ve met on several occasions, interviewed on the radio, and, in the case of Pawlenty, shared a beer with becoming President of THE United States of America just didn’t seem possible.

Never was the scene more surreal than during last Thursday’s debate (which now seems like a month ago) when Pawlenty and Bachmann locked horns in a nasty intrastate spate that was difficult to watch. Polls the day after the debate showed that Iowans were almost uniformly uncomfortable with the confrontation and as James Lileks noted on Twitter that evening, it felt like being at a party where a couple won’t quit arguing. The mood was certainly ugly and Minnesota Republicans could be forgiven for not thinking they were hearing strains of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” playing in the background. I don’t think either candidate came off well during the exchange, but Pawlenty clearly was more damaged by it as evidenced by his poor showing in the straw poll. And the damage wasn’t caused because he attacked a fellow Republican. It was because of how desperate and floundering the attack appeared. How unpresidential and, to me at least, how unPawlenty it came across as.

During his announcement that he was pulling out of the race, Pawlenty mentioned that voters weren’t buying the message he was trying to sell. While that was no doubt true, I think a bigger problem was that Pawlenty was never sure exactly what he was selling. More specifically, which Tim Pawlenty were we supposed to get excited about? The competent two-term governor of a blue state who held the line on taxes? The blue collar “Sam’s Club conservative”? Or the pro-growth economic optimist who promised 5% GDP growth? Or some of all of the above?

When I watched Pawlenty during the past year—on television interviews, giving speeches, or during the two debates—the same reoccurring thought crossed my mind: this is not the Tim Pawlenty that I know. This is not the Tim Pawlenty that I encountered over the years in Minnesota. Not the same affable guy who usually was able to get his message across well whether on a personal level or delivering a speech. Not the Tim Pawlenty who appeared comfortable in his own skin.

Voters will forgive a lot in their politicians. One thing they usually won’t forgive is not being authentic. Bill Clinton might be a fun lovin’ skirt chaser prone to stretching the truth, but that’s who he was. George W. Bush might be a free wheelin’ Texas cowboy prone to butchering the language, but again there was no doubt that was the real GW. Meanwhile, when Al Gore tried to find himself in the midst of the 2000 campaign, voters weren’t interested in being part of that discovery process. Which in hindsight was good, because the real Al Gore turned out to be a stark raving mad lunatic.

I think that one of the reasons that Pawlenty never caught on with the GOP faithful nationwide was because they never could get the sense of who the real Tim Pawlenty was. And the more that Pawlenty attempted to define himself and stand out, the less authentic he appeared. The attempt to tag Romney with the “Obamney Care” label seemed somewhat contrived when it started and looked even more so when Pawlenty backed away from reaffirming during the first debate. The attacks against Bachmann in the second debate were even less convincing and turned out to be the last gasps of a candidate and campaign that never could find its identity.

When I mentioned Pawlenty’s identity problem to a friend yesterday, the first comparison that came to his mind was also the one I had been harboring: Bob Dole. During the 1996 campaign for president, Dole came across as stiff, grumpy, and, as unfair as it might sound, old. This left him at a huge disadvantage to the vibrant, energetic image that the country had of President Clinton. Yet shortly after the campaign ended as Dole made the late night talk show circuit, a new Bob Dole emerged. A witty, self-deprecating fellow who appeared at ease and quite content. With the economy rocking and the country upbeat, it’s unlikely that Dole could have beaten Clinton under any circumstances. But it certainly seems feasible to believe that had the country seen the “real” Bob Dole during the campaign, the electoral results would have been much closer.

Likewise, while I don’t necessarily think that the “real” Tim Pawlenty would win the GOP nomination, I do think that if we had seen more of him in the last year his campaign might not have folded up its tent so soon. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of the real thing.

UPDATE-- An e-mailer who requests anonymity, suggests another reason behind Pawlenty’s fall:

I have an opinion about what went wrong vis a vis Bachmann. Pawlenty and his staff (some of whom I spoke to just a week before the debate as things were getting testy between them) had a very condescending attitude toward Michele. Eye rolls all around when she was mentioned. A sort of “can you believe she is even in this?” attitude. I think that attitude started coming across in Pawlenty the candidate. And the voters just being introduced to them did not understand his condescension. They liked what they saw in Michele.

Now there is probably some valid history there. Maybe they know some negative stuff about Bachmann or her campaign. I dunno. But his mistake was letting his frustration/condescension show to the voters. I warned the staff that I spoke to that it wasn’t playing well (this was during the migraine debate). Their universal reaction was more eyerolling...

p.s. it is also my opinion that Pawlenty has now been upstaged last minute by 2 female candidates (Palin/Bachmann)– 2 Lucys who stole the football from Charlie Brown. And his condescension has a whiff of sexism...

He wouldn't have been the first to underestimate Bachmann to his eventual detriment, but you would think that knowing her track record would have prevented him from having such a dissmissive attitude.