Tim Pawlenty departed the Republican presidential race branded a “me-too” conservative who didn’t have the guts to speak his mind when it counted.
What a shame. What a shame that Pawlenty bowed to the tea party wing of his party and abandoned the qualities that made him a popular two-term Minnesota governor. He was once known for his blue-state moderation and political courage.
Not anymore. A fact that says as much about today’s GOP as it does about Pawlenty himself.
Pawlenty first crossed my radar in April 2004 when I stopped by the Minnesota governor’s office at the start of a five-state trip to gauge the mood of U.S. voters early in the reelection campaign of President George W. Bush.
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It was an inflection point for Bush. While his approval ratings were still relatively high, the percentage of people who trusted the president had begun to fall. An Associated Press poll released the week of my visit found that an increasing number of people – about half – felt that military action in Iraq had increased the threat of terrorism. A growing number of Americans feared that Iraq would become another intractable war like Vietnam.
Still, few if any Republican leaders had spoken out against the war.
“People are becoming unnerved about it,” Pawlenty said when I asked off-handedly how the war was playing in his state. “Minnesota communities are strong and tough, but people do want to know, 'What's the endgame here?'"
He knew the comment would draw fire from the White House – and , indeed, Karl Rove made his anger known to Pawlenty within hours of the interview. But Pawlenty spoke from his heart; earlier in the week, he had attended the funeral of a Minnesota serviceman killed in Iraq, and would attend another in a few days.
Pawlenty advisers told me later that Rove’s office asked the governor to disavow the comments. Pawlenty stood by what he said.
“It's a mess,” he said. “You've got people there who, based on religious backgrounds, hate each other. They've got all kinds of agendas and sub-agendas, and I think it's confusing to Americans because they don't understand why Iraqis don't like us. They don't get it."
Contrast that to a low point in Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. In a mid-June debate, Pawlenty backed down from criticizing GOP rival Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, which only a day earlier he had called “Obamneycare.” He later admitted it had been a mistake to back down.
Pawlenty also backed away from his record in Minnesota, where he advocated blue-collar conservatism. He represented a more modern, inclusive Republican Party – a “party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club” - that stressed lower taxes while eschewing divisive politics.
But as a presidential candidate he followed the tea party to the right – out of political necessity, his aides would whisper – on such issues as health care reform and climate change. Once known as a national leader on the environment, Pawlenty apologized to anybody who would listen for his “flirtation” with cap-and-trade policy.
Some say he lacked guts as a presidential candidate: He couldn’t criticize Romney to his face, much less stare down the tea party. Really? The guy stood up to Bush and Rove. There must another explanation. Perhaps, as a rookie presidential candidate, Pawlenty was too cautious and over-reliant on his consultants. Maybe he can blame the media, those damn reporters who couldn’t write enough about his flip-flopping to the right. Or it might just be that Pawlenty bowed to a new political reality in the GOP: The tea party is scarier than Karl Rove, even at his angriest and most powerful, which is saying something.
Whatever the explanation, the politician who blinked in Romney’s presence was a pale imitation of the one who raised a red flag over Iraq in the spring of 2004.
"They're starting to ask this question,” Pawlenty said of Minnesota voters seven years ago: "'Is this thing really going to work?'"
The answer, of course, was no. The Iraq war did not work as promised.
And, sadly – mysteriously – neither did Pawlenty’s campaign.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ron Fournier, editor-in-chief of the National Journal Group, was the AP’s political reporter when he interviewed Pawlenty in 2004.