Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Here's David Frum with what seems to be the conventional wisdom about Tim Pawlenty and last night's debate -- except it isn't, really:

Tim Pawlenty was debate night's big loser. He walked onto that stage with one mission: to prove himself the ultra-base alternative to Romney. He failed, miserably.

Pawlenty's failure is not the kind of stumble he can correct later. It goes to the core of the guy: offered the chance to confront Romney directly, he flinched. He did not look "nice." He did not look like he was observing the 11th commandment. He looked uncertain and weak.

Pawlenty was the big loser: as conventional wisdom goes, that's undisputed. It's the rest of it that's debatable -- the part about his mission being outreach to "the ultra-base." Frum's ex-employee Ross Douthat says Pawlenty's mission was exactly the opposite:

Essentially, there were two debates going on: One between Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul for the chance to emerge as the dark horse/spoiler of this cycle, and the other between Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney for the actual nomination itself.

According to Douthat, Pawlenty's job wasn't to appeal to "the ultra-base" -- it was to try to win the George Will/David Brooks primary, by being a better "serious," "grown-up" candidate than Romney.

I think Pawlenty's problem is that he can't decide whether to pursue a crazy-base strategy or a Wills/Brooks strategy. So he tries to do both, first using that ridiculous but apparently (on the right) momentarily effective schoolyard taunt "Obamneycare," then refusing to follow up on the Romney attack. The vacillation just makes him look phonier.

Yes, Romney is trying to be the "grown-up" and the (occasional) base-pleaser simultaneously, and I imagine the base thinks he's phony, but he seems to be getting away with it because the base has decided he's the electable guy they may have to hold their noses and vote for. Pawlenty hasn't made that case -- he hasn't even come close -- so his only hope is to out-muscle the other crazies.

Which means he has no hope. But if he'd stuck to his guns and continued hammering away at Romney, he might have won a few voters over to the notion that he's a fellow crazy and Romney's unacceptably impure.

Ah, but then Wills and Brooks might drum him out of the grown-ups' club, right?

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