The Sound of Settling
Maybe Tim Pawlenty is just the sort of boring, solid candidate Republicans need.
Boringness can be a virtue. Boring people don't find themselves at the center of colorful sex scandals, with photos of their chests in the inboxes of Craigslist users. Boring people don't punch people who come at them with video cameras. Boring people can sometimes get awfully far in politics.
Not too far, though. You probably don't care much about Tim Pawlenty finally, officially announcing his 2012 presidential campaign today. One reason you don't care is that at a crucial time in 2008, any Republican who mattered decided he was boring. Pawlenty, then the governor of Minnesota—he'd survived a close re-election campaign, partly because his opponent exploded and called a reporter a "Republican whore"—made it on to John McCain's running-mate shortlist. McCain's team looked him over and went for Sarah Palin instead.
"In any normal year, Tim Pawlenty's a great pick, a no-brainer," said McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, according to one account in Mark Halperin's and John Heilemann's Game Change. "But this isn't a normal year. We need to have a transformative, electrifying moment in this campaign."
"Electrifying" meant Sarah Palin. Palin became a bright, burning supernova in the Republican cosmos. Pawlenty remained a marginal figure, closely watched by the political class but a total nonentity everywhere else. (One example: There is no Pawlenty role in HBO's Game Change movie.) Every couple of days, there is a boomlet for another Republican savior. Every boomlet comes with a sub rosa message from Republican pundits: Please, please, give us someone besides Pawlenty.
This is seriously unfair to Pawlenty, but you can understand what his party's thinking. If prospective candidates were universities, and the Republican primary voter were a high-school senior applying to college, then Pawlenty would be the safety school. A bland, solid Midwestern land-grant university. The problem with a safety school, of course, is that no one's in a hurry to RSVP "yes" to it. David Frum, who occasionally predicts that Pawlenty will win the nomination, puts it another way: "Predicting Pawlenty feels like reaching the wrong answer on a math exam. You do the calculation and you arrive at the answer, Pawlenty. You think: That can't be right."
Why is Pawlenty such a hard sell to Republicans? It may be a matter of branding. Whatever a candidate seems to be, people try to find it in his speeches. Mitt Romney is branded as a guy who will say anything, so his speeches are combed for evidence of flip-flops. Sarah Palin is branded as an angry mom who'll say anything and reaches the boiling point after the most minor insult; her speeches, tweets, and Facebook notes are read like the Kabbalah for more proof of the theory.
Pawlenty is branded as boring. He's actually had to field questions about how boring he is. "There may be some more people who are dramatically more entertaining, but [they] probably aren't getting elected," he told Scott Conroy in an early interview about the Dull Factor.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty by Steve Pope/Getty Images.