Commentary Magazine


Pawlenty Looks Back On “Obamneycare”

Though the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination still has a ways to go, it’s safe to say Tim Pawlenty’s “Obamneycare” moment will be one of the lasting images of the campaign. Presented with the opportunity to hit Mitt Romney with the term he coined just prior to the second debate, Pawlenty declined–even when prompted–and was left looking weak.

In Politico’s just-released e-book on the first part of the 2012 GOP race, Mike Allen and Evan Thomas let Pawlenty clarify the moment in his own words. In a word, the explanation seems to be “overcoaching.” Pawlenty, ever the sports fan, uses golf terminology like “swing thought” to describe his inner-monologue:

The consultants say, if you get a question from the screen, you’ve got to answer the person on the screen because otherwise it’s disrespectful of the citizen. So whatever her name is gets up on the screen and says, I have a health care question. So my first swing thought is, I’ve got to answer the screen. So I say to the woman, Betty or Nancy or whatever your name is, that’s a great question about health care, and I’m doing that [answering by talking about Obamacare], and John King doesn’t want to hear any of that. He wants to hear me whack Romney. So he interrupts me the first time and says, Well, what about this thing you said about Romney and what you called “Obamneycare”?

And then I start to whale on Obama because my second swing thought is, After you do the screen, no matter what question you get, you’ve got to whale on Obama because the base loves that, and they like nothing better than when you criticize Obama and then pivot to whatever point you’re going to make. So I’m thinking, Screen, whale Obama, nick Mitt. So this is my three-point swing thought, so I’m through swing thought one on the screen, and King’s interrupted me. When I’m into swing thought two about Obama, he doesn’t want to hear that, either. He wants me to nick Mitt, and I’m fully prepared to do it, and we get into this awkward, I’m trying to say something, he trying to get me to get to the point. At that point I’m focused on Obama, and I thought it was a legitimate point to whale on Obama, but I decided to stay with that and not finish it with Mitt.

The authors indicate, however, that it may just have been Pawlenty’s inability to fully internalize the coaching he was getting. Part of that, they write, manifested itself in Pawlenty’s newfound habit of “shouting to show anger he didn’t really feel.” This gets back to the question of “authenticity”–something that also plagued Pawlenty’s brief campaign.

Allen and Thomas add that Pawlenty always seemed interested in slipping away from the campaign trail to the hotel sports bar to see if there were any hockey games on television. Voters tend to be drawn to candidates they can relate to on some level, but there might be such a thing as “too normal” to run for president.