Recent weeks have finally defined the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The field has finally achieved a greater level of clarity as many candidates have opted out, running the absurd-to-formidable gamut from Donald Trump to Mitch Daniels. A smaller number have opted in, running the has-been to may-never-be gamut from Newt Gingrich to Tim Pawlenty, not to mention former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who officially entered the race yesterday.
A former Minnesota governor, Pawlenty officially joined the wannabe ranks last week with a speech aimed at defining himself as a fearless teller of hard truths (previously he had perhaps best been known for lacking any definition at all). This is smart on several levels. He quickly moved to fill the void left by Daniels, the governor of Indiana, whom many in the party had yearned for as a tough-minded fiscal hawk. And in part it is a strong bid for the mantel of not-Romney, the alternative to the former Massachusetts governor and current GOP front-runner. Romney is a laughably transparent flip-flopper, so Pawlenty's new truth-teller frame could make him an ideal foil.
Politicians love to position themselves as tellers of hard truths, brave enough to boldly level with the voters. And the current tempestuous political climate, with its roiling discontent with politics as usual, especially lends itself to such a pose. Pawlenty is merely the latest candidate to seize this meme. [See a slide show of the 2012 GOP contenders.]
But his candidacy runs squarely afoul of Robert's 13th rule of politics: People like the idea of hard truths and hard-truth tellers much more than they like the reality of them. You can ask straight shooters like Walter Mondale ("Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."), Paul "I'm not Santa Claus" Tsongas, and John "Straight Talk" McCain. Winning the presidency requires an aspirational element at odds with the doom-and-gloom that comes with those self-consciously trying to speak hard truths.
So kudos to Pawlenty for standing up to big ethanol in little Iowa. But while some may take off their hats to him for traveling to Florida in order to call for overhauls (read: cuts) of Social Security and Medicare, it might be merely to scratch one's head. As Hot Air blogger Allahpundit quipped after Pawlenty's Florida performance, "Alternate headline: 'Pawlenty now unelectable in not one but two early primary states.' " [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]
Maybe this is actually deep strategy. Many conservatives and Tea Partyers in particular seem intent these days on—as Ronald Reagan used to complain of some of his more gung-ho supporters—going "off the cliff with all flags flying." Perhaps this is a clever way for Pawlenty to appeal to that "I'd rather lose being right" instinct.
An additional problem for would-be hard-truth tellers is that in the telling, these so-called truths often become vehicles for an even harder ideology. The attempt to conflate serious problems with ideologically inflexible and partisan solutions can create political tensions and open deadly political rifts. See the political abyss House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has marched his colleagues into over his plan to repeal and replace Medicare. [Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?]
With the future insolubility of Medicare as a starting point, Ryan and the GOP have embarked on an emphatically ideological course. They hailed themselves as seriously facing a tough issue, and they spin the plan as an attempt to save the program, but all it would save would be the name "Medicare." A guarantee of healthcare would be replaced with a voucher of diminishing value. If it fails to cover seniors' costs . . . tough luck. The view was perhaps best summed up by Georgia GOP Rep. Rob Woodall, who chastised a constituent at a town hall meeting last month when she asked how, after Ryan's reforms eliminated the guarantee of Medicare, she could expect to get medical coverage since she worked for a company that doesn't offer it in their retirement package. "Hear yourself, ma'am," he said. "You want the government to take care of you, because your employer decided not to take care of you. My question is, 'When do I decide I'm going to take care of me?' "
Woodall, like many conservatives, fails to grasp why programs like Medicare were created. They were a response to a market failure—specifically an inability of senior citizens to get or pay for healthcare. But in Woodall's world there are apparently no market failures; if seniors can't get healthcare it's because they simply won't take responsibility for themselves. Of course in 1964, 44 percent of senior citizens had no health coverage, and the cost of medical bills had driven more than one third of them below the poverty line. If only they had had the moral fiber to take care of themselves! [Check out editorial cartoons about the Republican Party.]
Safe in a heavily conservative district, Woodall can spout such nonsense. But roughly 60 House Republicans represent districts Barack Obama won in 2008 and virtually all voted for the Ryancare overhaul. In this case, the gap between hard truths and hard ideology may be big enough to swallow a House majority.
Just ask the pollsters employed by the House GOP, who warned that the bill was a ticking time bomb, Politico reported last week. Or ask Jane Corwin, that bomb's first casualty. She is the Republican who lost May's special election in a GOP-leaning New York district in which the Ryan plan was the defining issue. Or ask Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Scott Brown, four of the five Senate Republicans who fled the plan last week (the fifth, Rand Paul, opposed it as not being conservative enough).
Or ask Gingrich, the former House speaker who drew party-wide opprobrium when he dismissed the Ryan plan as being so much "right-wing social engineering." Pity poor Newt: He was just trying to tell a hard truth.
- Read: Why the Republican Medicare Strategy Just Might Work in the Long Run.
- See a slide show of the 2012 GOP contenders.
- Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
- Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?