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Tim Pawlenty bets on boldness

at 01:19 PM ET, 05/23/2011


Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty officially entered the 2012 presidential race on Monday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In announcing his campaign for president in Iowa Monday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty placed a big bet on boldness.

He called for a phasing out — albeit gradual — of federal ethanol subsidies, a move long considered a political death wish in a state with such a large agricultural community.

But, Pawlenty didn’t stop there. In his speech he detailed how he will travel this week to Florida — one of the oldest (by age) states in the country — to call for fundamental reform of Medicare and Social Security, to Washington to take on alleged largess in the federal government and to New York to make clear the era of bailouts of the financial industry is over.

“Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street,” Pawlenty said. “But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people.”

The “speak truth to power” idea — and Pawlenty used the word “truth” 16 times in his announcement speech — is an interesting one for the former Minnesota governor who has often been described as too vanilla or too boring to excite the GOP electorate.

Pawlenty appears to be gambling that while no single one of his proposals will be popular in the state at which they are aimed, he will get credit from the Republican primary electorate for addressing them in a serious way.

In that, Pawlenty is attempting to channel the political appeal of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — all three of whom have gained national renown for a willingness to take on the so-called sacred political cows.

“I am going to tell you the truth,” Pawlenty said. “The truth is, Washington’s broken.”

Viewed from 10,000 feet, Pawlenty’s message is potentially compelling as it allows him to make a serious play for the voters — and political professionals — who have stayed on the sidelines, waiting for the likes of Daniels or Christie to get into the race.

The regular-guy-who-tells-it-like-it-is narrative is also an attempt by Pawlenty and his team to shine a bright light on the largest perceived weakness of frontrunning former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney: that he is a flip-flopper, willing to say anything to get elected.

(Romney is taking steps to address that attack; his recent health care speech was largely aimed not at explaining why he signed a health care law in Massachusetts but at touting his authenticity.)

Viewed more narrowly, however, it’s less clear that Pawlenty’s boldness strategy is destined for success.

Calling for the revoking of the federal ethanol subsidies in Iowa is a dangerous political game.

One needs only look to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns as evidence of the danger. McCain opposed ethanol subsidies, couching that opposition as part of his “straight talk” appeal. (Sound familiar?)

In Iowa, it didn’t sell. McCain basically skipped Iowa in each of his presidential races — finishing fifth in 2000 and fourth in 2008.

Both Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) and Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) opposed ethanol subsidies in their 2008 presidential campaigns. But both were major long shots who had little to lose by alienating that key Iowa constituency.

Then New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton opposed ethanol subsidies in Senate votes but as a presidential candidate in 2008, she came out in favor of them.

“I voted on behalf of my constituents,” Clinton said of her past vote against ethanol subsidies, adding that the broadening of ethanol production across the country had changed her position.

(Here’s a detailed look at how President Obama tackled the issue of ethanol subsidies during the 2008 campaign; he won Iowa in the caucuses and the general election.)

Pawlenty clearly believes that the times in which we live — ever mounting federal debt and a rapidly increasing concern about it among average voters — have changed the ethanol calculus.

But, remember that the presidential nomination process is not a national election; it is a series of state-by-state contests.

Pawlenty’s decision to bet on boldness will almost certainly be praised by the GOP chattering class as just the sort of truth-telling that the party and the country need right now. But, winning the Iowa caucuses also matter — in a major way — to Pawlenty and his opposition to subsidies will almost certainly make that victory more difficult.(Whether slightly more difficult or drastically more difficult remains to be seen.)

Make no mistake: he and his political team have rolled the dice. We won’t know whether the gamble will pay off until early next year.

 
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