Pawlenty Explains his Campaign-Ending "Obamneycare" Whiff

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 1 2011 9:36 AM

Pawlenty Explains his Campaign-Ending "Obamneycare" Whiff

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LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 17: (L-R) Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney joke around as Romney opens his Nevada campaign headquarters October 17, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Romney and six other presidential contenders will participate in a debate airing on CNN, sponsored by the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas on October 18. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The people who once worked for Tim Pawlenty are in agreement. Their uphill climb became impossible after the second presidential debate, the first to include Mitt Romney, when Pawlenty refused to repeat an attack on "Obamneycare" that he'd made two days earlier in a TV interview. The initial spin was that the media was stupid to even push on this. "The answer that he gave is not what [CNN's] John King wanted," said Pawlenty campaign manager Nick Ayers. "Look, I understand the press. You all have a job to do, and the governor has a different role to play." It actually took some befuddled reactions from real live voters and donors for Pawlenty to start admitting that he whiffed.

In Politico's kicky new e-book, The Right Fights Back, Tim Pawlenty unloads about what happened at the debate. He compares his thought process to that of a golfer staying icy as he swings.

The constultants 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, 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 two thought 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's trying to get me 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.
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Maybe it's not fair to demand that candidates prove they can riff in multi-candidate debates as a condition for becoming president. Still, if you're a Republican now moaning that Pawlenty left the race too soon, and he could have won it... still think that? Are you confident that Pawlenty's objection to Romney on health care appreciated why conservatives objected to it?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.