Does Tim Pawlenty have a “toughness problem?” Or do we have a media problem?

At the last Republican debate, CNN’s John King gave Pawlenty an easy opening to repeat his “Obamaneycare” dig at presumptive GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney directly. Pawlenty declined. That lead to a series of stories questioning whether Pawlenty is “tough enough” to be president. A former adviser to Rudy Giuliani, told Politico :“If you’re not comfortable following through on a criticism of one of your primary opponents in person, why should voters think you’ll be able to man up and follow through on a criticism of the president when you face him?”

Ever since Al Gore, the press has engaged in a practice of latching on to some perceived personality flaw in a particular presidential candidate and shoehorning all their coverage of that candidate into that frame. With Barack Obama, it’s that he’s too “aloof.” With Mitt Romney it’s that he’s insincere. Now Pawlenty is in danger of facing a similar media meme about his supposed “lack of toughness.” As Jonathan Chait wrote a few weeks ago about this phenomenon, “An Al Gore problem results in the media ganging up on a candidate like cool kids mocking a geek, with literally everything he’s doing serving as more evidence for the predetermined narrative.” The high school metaphor seems particularly apt when we’re talking about questioning someone’s qualifications to be president based on their ability to level a schoolyard taunt at their rivals.

There are two other factors making this problem worse. One is that Pawlenty himself settled on a strategy of using these kinds of taunts to get press attention. After all, he was the one who came up with “Obamneycare” before declining to use it in a debate, instead deciding to mock Romney on Twitter a few days later. In his opening campaign video, he basically called the president a coward, before following up on Twitter with a snide remark about the president’s visit to Ireland, calling it a “European pub crawl.” Conservatives were ecstatic over Pawlenty’s Twitter jibes at Obama, with one blogger at Pajamas Media writing: “Pawlenty is THOR…fear his mighty hammer.” Paging Dr. Freud…

That brings me to Pawlenty’s second problem. You can’t blame the bogus “tough enough” narrative entirely on the media. It’s Republicans, with their desire for a a candidate who is some kind of genetic hybrid of Ronald Reagan and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, who are really turned off by his perceived “weakness.”

Whoever is to blame, the “not tough enough” narrative is just dumb. It’s one thing to say that Republicans need a candidate who is capable of effectively attacking his opponents. But it’s another thing entirely to hear people questioning Pawlenty’s masculinity because he has trouble acting like a kid in a playground.