Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has used an unusual term to define President Obama in recent weeks: “declinist.” (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

“Declinism” is everywhere in Republican presidential politics these days.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty used the word while defending his ambitious economic plan at last week’s debate; “This president is a declinist,” Pawlenty said. “He views America as one of equals around the world.”

The term was also regularly invoked at this weekend’s Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans — particularly by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), a longshot potential presidential candidate.

All of the “declinism” talk prompts a simple question: What is it exactly?

The word — which is rarely employed outside of academic circles — appears to have been first used by Samuel P. Huntington, a hero of neoconservatives best known for his “Clash of Civilizations” theory of the post-cold war world.

In 1988, Huntington wrote about waves of “declinism” in American politics in which large segments of the electorate — generally on the ideological left — became so disillusioned that they began to believe the United States was declining in relationship to the rest of the world and might never recover.

Basically, it’s the belief the American exceptionalism — the concept that the United States is different in kind from the rest of the world — no longer applies.

(For more, check out this piece from the Hoover Institution.)

The term is along the same lines as “defeatist” — a word Republicans used with some success to define anti-war Democrats in the middle of the last decade. All of a sudden, the Democrats were cast not just as believing that the war in Iraq was lost, but of actually basking in that fact and/or not believing in the military’s ability to win.

Declinism is essentially the economic version of defeatism. It says to voters: “This president doesn’t believe you can succeed.”

As GOP candidates begin to try to distinguish their economic vision for the United States from that of Obama, it appears as though “declinism” is the way they will do it.

Almost every speaker at last weekend’s Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans had their own version of how Obama’s vision for the country clashed with the idea of American exceptionalism.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called it “European socialism” and former senator Rick Santorum suggested that Obama doesn’t believe in Americans.

With the state of the economy not improving as rapidly as Obama would like, the idea that he has a “declinist” philosophy actually fits in nicely with the game plan Republicans will try to use against him.

In short: pick a Republican who believes this country is unique and always will be, or pick a president who doesn’t think his country is special and whose economic approach has led to 9 percent unemployment.

Obviously President Obama and his political team will have something to say in this debate. But Republicans have clearly seized on the idea of declinism since it riles up their base as few other issues do. That means there will be lots more “declinism” talk on the campaign trail over the next few months.