When running for President of the United States, there are certain things you never want to hear your advisers saying to the press. “I have not yet seen the National Enquirer story,” is one. “The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding,” is another. “Something will happen. Anthony Weiner will resign. Something will happen,” is a third.
The New York Times‘ Michael Shear (no relation) drew that last gem out of Vin Weber, a campaign adviser to Tim Pawlenty, to explain how the candidate gets out of the latest news cycle, which has cast Pawlenty as the candidate-who-couldn’t-follow-through. Weber also told Shear that he called his candidate after Monday’s debate to say “Hang in there.” Oof. To quote the theme song from First Blood, the 1982 John Rambo movie, “It’s a long road, when you are on your own.”
In quick summary, here is Pawlenty’s campaign up to now: He is, almost everyone would agree, a likable, above average, conservative governor from Lake Wobegon, er, Minnesota, who works hard and tries to do the right thing. But he wants to be President, and nobody outside of Minnesota really knows who he is or why they should care. So he plans a biographical roll out, with heavy emphasis on his blue collar upbringing. He writes a book. He travels around the country. He works the phones diligently, and compiles a serious, smart campaign team, focused on the idea that the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is too flawed to actual withstand real competition.
He launches his campaign with a tough-talking provocative message: I will not pander on issues like ethanol, or run away from entitlements. I will be honest. It’s something, because it begins to offer Pawlenty some definition beyond his time as a teenager in St. Paul, watching cow carcasses. So far, so good. But he wants more definition, so he travels to Chicago and gives a major policy address, calling for enormous tax and spending cuts, which fulfill the rhetorical dreams of conservatives, but don’t make any policy sense. His new idea, to predict 5% economic growth without a credible plan to achieve 5% economic growth, seems to contradict the earlier truth-telling theme. But he doesn’t mind. When people ask him why he has stopped making sense, he just says he is bold and optimistic. As a political message, this seems to be a good one, since the only group of people Americans like less than politicians who pander is reporters who claim politicians are pandering. By the time Pawlenty enters Monday’s debate, he is starting to achieve what he most desperately needs, some definition that could spark some fundraising.
Then CNN’s John King, who is among his professions best disciples of the follow-up question, ruins it all. The topic is Obama’s health care reforms, and Pawlenty has been asked to explain an epithet he had debuted just a day earlier, ObamneyCare, which conflated ObamaCare and RomneyCare. This epithet matters, because it is at the core of the Pawlenty theory, the idea that front-runner Romney is too flawed to win. But Pawlenty, whose message is boldness, chooses to equivocate. Here is the tape:
KING: Governor, you just heard the governor rebut your characterization, Obamneycare. Why?
PAWLENTY: Well, let me first say to Sylvia, she has put her finger on one of the most important issues facing the country, which is President Obama stood before the nation in 2008 and said he promised to do health care reform focused on cost containment, along with Republicans, he’d do it on a bipartisan basis…
KING: The question — the question, Governor, was, why Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: That’s right. Well, I’m going to get to that, John.
KING: You have 30 seconds, Governor.
PAWLENTY: Yeah, so we — this is another example of him breaking his promise, and he has to be held accountable. And in order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan. We took a different approach in Minnesota. We didn’t use top-down government mandates and individual requirements from government. We created market alternatives and empowered consumers. I think that’s the way to fix health care in the United States of America.
KING: And you don’t want to address why you called Governor Romney’s Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two? And I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.
KING: But you chose — you say you were asked a question, which is fair enough, but you chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those — choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on “Fox News Sunday,” why isn’t it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
PAWLENTY: It — President Obama is — is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term “Obamneycare” was a reflection of the president’s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
KING: All right.
Four questions. No answer. Not bold. Not truth-telling. Not even above average. Meanwhile, Pawlenty’s biggest rival for the role of Romney-killer, Michele Bachmann, has a banner night, owing largely to her ability to speak clearly, confidently and emphatically before large crowds. Now Pawlenty is left waiting to be saved by the resignation of a Democrat with an unfortunate tendency to send around pictures of his own crotch.
What next? Well in the short term, Pawlenty’s must worry about his second-quarter fundraising numbers. Bachmann should have a big haul, since she is a very strong fundraiser, and Romney has more wealthy friends than anyone else right now in Republican politics, with the possible exception of David Koch. In the meantime, Pawlenty has the unhappy problem of having to make money for himself. According to Politico’s Kendra Marr, he plans to deliver a paid speech to America’s Health Insurance Plans in San Francisco today.
This is awkward, but not illegal. Ever since Eugene McCarthy raked in the speaking fee dough in 1976 while running for office, the Federal Election Commission has generally allowed candidates to make a personal living on the side, “as long as they render services and the payments is comparable,” says Jan Baran, a Republican campaign finance attorney, who does not represent a 2012 candidate, though another attorney at his firm does. The awkward part comes as a result of the crowd he is addressing. Health insurers were among the biggest opponents of the health care reforms that Pawlenty now wants to repeal. They are not exactly passive spectators in the 2012 campaign.
All that said, Weber is right. The news cycle will move on. Pawlenty still has plenty of opportunities to define himself. As Dan Hill sang in Rambo’s closing credits, “‘Cause the road is long, yeah/Each step is only the beginning… Day or night you’ve got to fight/Just to keep alive.”