Commentary Magazine


Pawlenty Gets Tough With Surging Bachmann

Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign took a body blow last month when he visibly faltered when presented with an opportunity to confront rival Mitt Romney in person on health care. But with many pundits writing his candidacy’s obituary and with his future seemingly riding on the outcome of the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa next month, Pawlenty came out swinging yesterday on Meet The Press.

With MTP’s David Gregory egging him on, it was no more “Minnesota Nice” for Pawlenty. He contrasted what he considers his own record as a governor with that of others who have never been in charge of anything. He claimed while he had actually done the things others say they want to do, some of his rivals were just “running around flapping their jaws.” When asked about Bachmann, he said her “record of accomplishment is non-existent.”

There is a strong argument to be made that experience in actually running a state is vital in preparing to be president, especially in light of Republican critiques of President Obama having spent much of his first term learning on the job. And there is no question that Bachmann, like Obama, has spent her time in Washington concentrating on issues advocacy rather than passing legislation.

But the problem for Pawlenty in making this point is that, just like Obama, Bachmann’s ostensible weakness is also a source of strength. Having never chosen to dirty her hands making the necessary compromises to pass a budget or get colleagues and opponents to support a bill in exchange for votes on their pet issues, Bachmann is inexperienced but also pure. She wears her “non-existent record of accomplishment” as a badge of honor, not shame. As I wrote last week, Bachmann’s politics of purity is exactly what movement conservatives and activists want. For many of them, even negotiating with members on the other side of the aisle or the White House is itself a sign of weakness or a lack of virtue.

From the point of view of practical politics, that’s silly, but it is a fact that Bachmann is untainted by compromise while anyone (who as Pawlenty says of himself), “can lead a large enterprise in a public setting,” is tainted. Since many Republicans view former Republican majorities in Congress as having abandoned conservative values in order to feather their own political nests, her attitude is considered principled, not foolish.

It remains to be seen whether the new tough guy Pawlenty will be able to sufficiently diminish Bachmann’s surge in time to save his own candidacy. The Iowa Republican-Voter/Consumer Research Poll conducted during the last week in June shows Bachmann jumping ahead of Mitt Romney to first place in the Hawkeye State. Bachmann leads Romney 24-21 percent with Pawlenty tied with Herman Cain for a distant third with 9 percent. As is the case with other recent polls, Bachmann’s favorability numbers far outstrip her rivals.

These figures illustrate the need for Pawlenty to knock Bachmann off her pedestal. But given his own continuing failure to garner enough support to be considered a legitimate first tier candidate, it may be that his critique of Bachmann’s inexperience will ultimately better serve someone else–like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who may soon step into the race.