Of the many people we heard from during CPAC this year, perhaps the one person who left me feeling the most conflicted was Tim Pawlenty. I’ve always been intrigued by the prospect of the former Minnesota governor taking a run at the Oval Office, probably because of my well known RINOish tendencies, but also out of appreciation for how a Republican with many admirable conservative characteristics could not only survive, but thrive in a place like the North Star State. (Republicans in New York have long faced similar challenges, so there’s probably natural some empathy there.)
Getting the chance to sit down with Pawlenty and discuss his prospects was enlightening, but it also set up a sharp contrast with his CPAC floor speech, which may be a harbinger of his POTUS bid to come. During our first look, I saw the Tim Pawlenty I was used to and a bit more. As the following video from the blogger reception he hosted shows, he handles himself very well when tackling issues and prickly questions. In particular, note how he addresses both his “clunkers” on his record, such as previously supporting cap and trade, as well as the somewhat sticky questions of whether he is “conservative enough” or if he faces some sort of “charisma gap” as compared to other candidates.
The one word which comes to my mind – which many people treat as a pejorative – is wonky. Pawlenty is an intelligent man, fast on his feet and quite personable. Whether you agree with him or not on any given subject, you never leave the room feeling as if you’ve been dealing with an uninformed, empty suit.
That was the speech which set me to wondering about Governor Pawlenty’s prospects in the primary. Rather than the “wonky” but very solid arguments on policy points which we’ve come to expect, he launched into a no holds barred festival of red meat for the conservative base. He joked about asking not which country President Obama was born in, but which planet he was from. He demanded the president “stop apologizing for our country” and extolled the virtues of American exceptionalism. Noble sentiments and crowd pleasers to be sure, but they seemed a bit out of place.
Obviously, the case can be made that this was precisely the audience where such a speech would be welcome, but from my perspective it simply didn’t sit well. Further, the delivery just seemed to hit the wrong notes. Pawlenty is compelling and confident in one on one situations. But when he takes the stage in a large gathering such as this there is a hesitation which is difficult to quantify.
There are some speakers – Reagan is frequently cited in such comparisons – who are “too large for the podium.” They dominate the room. With Pawlenty, no matter how excellently written the text nor how salient the points being made, he gives the impression of being slightly too small for the stage. It’s as if someone should have given him a milk crate to stand on.
When he paused for applause lines the audience sometimes seemed to feed on this negative energy and hesitate, unsure if that was when they were supposed to clap. And that’s a shame, in my opinion, because he is a fine candidate with many good points in his platform.
The governor’s speech was filled too far past the brim with red meat in a rather obvious effort to gin up the base. The field is full of candidates long on enthusiasm but short on details. I’d like to see T-Paw stick to his long suit and argue winning strategies for contemporary challenges, not the same old, “America Kicks Ass” theme we hear from everyone with access to a microphone.
This is not to say that one appearance dooms him any more than any of the other dark horse candidates we’re watching. But as the campaign progresses it would be nice to see him focus on issues and message a bit more and leave the cheer-leading to others.