The rapid demise of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty recalled the wisdom of Lincoln-via-Jesus: A house divided against itself can't stand.
Pawlenty sought above all to position himself as a pragmatic, results-oriented, problem-solving former executive of a blue state. But the more firmly-established former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney boasts the identical credential—this in addition to his private-sector experience.
So he tried to differentiate himself by outflanking Romney's right, first with a fumbling attack on the latter's healthcare record (the infamous "Obamneycare" contretemps) and next with a laugher of an economic proposal.
As my friend Amy Gardner of the Washington Post reports, Pawlenty's "Mr. Conservative" reboot was an utter flop: "It wasn't who he was, supporters said, and so he either came across forced or he hesitated so much that he left the opposite impression than he intended." [See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.]
Pawlenty shouldn't feel too bad, however: Romney himself mounted a similar campaign against the too-moderate Sen. John McCain in 2008. True, he didn't flame out as quickly as Pawlenty; he just wasted a bigger pile of cash.
There's another parallel: Pawlenty in '11 battled the same kind of thorn in the side that Romney did in '08. This year, Pawlenty was done in by the fire-breathing Rep. Michele Bachmann; in the last presidential season, Romney found he couldn't dispatch former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the candidate most trusted by social conservatives. [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]
All this ideological positioning and niche-occupying brings into sharp relief Texas Gov. Rick Perry's greatest potential strength: He can—or will try to—offer Republicans the best of both worlds: the results-oriented governor as well as the ideologically unspoiled standard-bearer.
Unlike any other Republican candidate, Perry can both tout a record of job-creation and pray for rain.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls Perry the "conservative id made flesh."
This isn't even the half of it. He's actually the neo-Confederate id made flesh. Take his flirtation with secessionist extremism; his asinine rhetoric about the unconstitutionality of Social Security and Medicare; his vision of an "inconsequential" federal government — what we have here is not so much a conservative as as a Calhounian.
Will Romney wilt under the pressure of the Perry-Bachmann tag team? Or will he triangulate above it?
Funnily enough, in last week's debate in Iowa, former Sen. Rick Santorum highlighted a territory that remains unoccupied in the current GOP field. He said: "There are things the states can't do. Abraham Lincoln said the states do not have the right to do wrong. I respect the 10th Amendment, but we are a nation that has values." [See a slide show of who's in and out for the GOP in 2012.]
Santorum was speaking, of course, in a context of bedrock social values, but the principle applies equally to economics.
Until recently—you need only look to the model of George W. Bush circa 1999—it was a mainstream conservative view that America is one nation.
The Perry-Bachmann-Palin-Tea Party-neo-Bircher juggernaut has shattered this consensus.
Will Romney—will anyone—run as a Lincoln Republican?