Yesterday, I mulled over column topics for The Week, and I ended up dividing them into two piles: Debt Ceiling, and … Everything But the Debt Ceiling.  After doing two columns in a row about the debt-ceiling debate, I decided to look for a new topic, one that filled me with hope rather than dread. So I chose the Tim Pawlenty – Michele Bachmann feud instead, or Minnesota Nice Goes On Ice.

Is there hope to be taken from the increasingly bitter exchange? On the surface, not so much, as both sides opt for hyperbole and context trimming:

Pawlenty’s argument about Bachmann’s lack of accomplishment ignores some important context. As a member of the House minority in her first two terms, Bachmann had as much chance of getting a bill to a vote as her Democratic neighbor Rep. Keith Ellison has in this session. Bachmann has focused on developing grassroots support for the Republican Party, rising as a leader of the Tea Party movement. Given the enormous victory in the midterms that Tea Party enthusiasm helped deliver for the GOP, arguing that Bachmann’s accomplishments are “non-existent” is hardly fair. …

Pawlenty is certainly vulnerable on climate change, a position he acknowledges was a “clunker,” and which he repudiates repeatedly on the campaign trail. Pawlenty also entertained the notion of state-level individual mandates for health insurance, eventually discarding them for other approaches. However, the “era of small government” accusation is plainly false, a statement which the Minneapolis Star Tribune misattributed to Pawlenty when he was quoting a David Brooks column to refute the notion.

Was there really “very little difference” between Pawlenty’s tenure as governor and Obama’s as president? It depends on the scale. If a Minnesotan uses the spectrum of American politics over the last 40 years, then Pawlenty governed more in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, both in California and in Washington; he fought against tax increases, forced the legislature to curtail spending increases, and stared down public-employee unions in a 44-day transit strike. Only by using a spectrum that includes Joseph Stalin on one end and Atilla the Hun on the other could anyone in Minnesota say, “Yah, you betcha” to the notion that Pawlenty governed like Obama, in both direction and accomplishment.

As I conclude in the column, however, the fact that two of the Republicans have finally decided to debate one another on their records is a good sign for the primary campaign, and for Republican voters.  As much as people like to invoke Reagan’s 11th Commandment, the purpose of a primary is comparative shopping.  We’re looking not just for the candidate who can rip Barack Obama, but who can defend themselves and their own record under heavy fire from the opposing side(s).  That may not be as important as the policies they espouse and the experience they bring, but it’s a necessary skill set, and it needs to be put on display before Republicans start casting votes in primaries and caucuses a few months from now.

Ironically, the best salvos (in effectiveness if not accuracy) so far in this campaign have come from the land of Minnesota Nice.  Now that the gloves have come off between the Minnesotans, let’s see how everyone else does.