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.
He's aware of the problem—the first step!—but it doesn't necessarily help him. His public remarks are scanned for boringness. A dull speech, one in which he repeats the same stories about growing up in South St. Paul, Minn., or chides Barack Obama for not being proud enough of America, doesn't make any news. What makes news is a reference to a Will Ferrell movie or a tortured analogy involving Charlie Sheen. Sometimes it's the release of yet another Lucas Baiano-produced campaign video that's a little too flashy for Zack Snyder. The videos are flashy, we're told, because the candidate can't spark any excitement of his own.
Pawlenty has an acute sense of how this may play out. Like he says, the people who "are dramatically more entertaining" can't win the election. Pawlenty earns a fraction of the media attention Donald Trump got, or Palin gets. That's because he doesn't blunder into as many stupid stories as they do, and the public doesn't dislike him as much. He's generic at a time when the only candidate who outpolls Obama is "Generic Republican."
He worked hard to be generic. His record after eight years of governing Minnesota has proven to be a small, slippery target for opposition researchers. The attacks on him from Democrats and from Democratic-aligned "nonpartisan" groups, like the Center for American Progress Action Fund, focus mostly on his say-anything approach to interviews in the conservative media. (Sympathetic interviewers have got him to say that he wants the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy reinstated, and that the debt ceiling doesn't need to be raised.) The oppo pros have only lightly touched on his gubernatorial record to find compromises that could sour Republicans on him. He briefly supported regional cap and trade; he briefly OK'd "sharia compliant" financing; he had a light touch with gubernatorial pardons (the latter is always a problem for governors).
These are all minor problems for Republican voters. None of them has the megaton impact of Romney's health care record. All of them subtly soften the image of someone who, in different circumstances, Democrats would portray as a stealthy, right-wing evangelical Christian.
A few conservative pundits have noticed this. George Will suggested that only Obama, Pawlenty, or Mitch Daniels could take the oath of office in January; after this weekend, the list shrank to two. In a longish piece for National Review, unfortunately titled "Pawlenty To Like," Ramesh Ponnuru did the Frum equation and explained why the uncontroversial former governor of a swing state was, "on paper … a great candidate." Stanley Kurtz made the same argument by ribbing fellow conservatives for being so picky.
The ideal Republican presidential candidate, obviously, is a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan with the personal wealth of Mitt Romney. More broadly, the best sort of candidate any party can nominate is one who's not moderate but convinces swing voters that he is. That was one reason Obama was so attractive to liberal donors in 2007 and 2008. Hillary Clinton came out of the reformist, Democratic Leadership Council school of politics, but over a couple of decades, conservatives had convinced a pretty large number of voters that she was a committed socialist. Obama had no such problem—voters thought he was more moderate than his record suggested he was.
That's a sweet place to be. Pawlenty's been there for approximately 10 years. So let everyone else write their "Please, please, can we have a more exciting candidate?" stories. Let Republican strategists give blind quotes to Politico about how they're ready to put the band together for some savior, if only the saviors would stop chickening out. Remember what happened the last time Republicans bypassed Pawlenty because he was too boring? If Republicans don't want to live through that again, the "no-brainer" is waiting for them.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty by Steve Pope/Getty Images.