Tim Pawlenty is exiting the race for the White House the same way he came in — on a tidal wave of conventional wisdom.
He was too even-tempered, they say, to catch on with a white-hot electorate. He was too level-headed, they say, to connect with a grassroots that’s gone to extremes. He was a nice guy — “boring,” in the parlance of our times — so he finished last.
Breaking news: The conventional wisdom is wrong. Pawlenty’s personality problem wasn’t a charisma deficit — it was a wimpiness surplus.
But the wimp factor is meaningless relative to the flaw that doomed his candidacy. As Ron Paul has amply proven, a certain kind of message can propel even the most unlikely of messengers deep into a crowded field.
Pawlenty is out, and out first, for one reason and one reason only.
It’s not Pawlenty. It’s Pawlentyism.
Tim Pawlenty is the canary in the establishment coal mine. His message — that the Republican Party doesn’t need to rethink any of its main policy propositions — no longer computes with a critical mass of Republican voters: not just in Ames, Iowa, but nationwide.
Paul and his (growing) army of faithful are no longer the lone data point. Michele Bachmann has built her campaign around a radical alternative to Republican spending orthodoxy. Sarah Palin fuels hopes of an even broader renunciation of the Republican establishment.
Even Mitt Romney now knows better than to re-run his losing proto-Pawlentyist campaign from 2008, when his change-nothing play for the mushy conservative middle left him obliged to spend millions to avoid T-Paw’s glum fate.
But time is running out on Romney’s current luxurious alternative, the anti-campaign. Rather than serving pabulum, Romney has served nothing; pointing a finger at Obama has been enough. No longer. He will have to offer, like any Republican candidate serious about claiming the nomination, a fundamental departure from the miasma of convention that clings to the Republican brand.
It’s not that Pawlenty’s brand of mainstream, fusionist conservatism is wrong. It’s that it misses the point. The principles are necessary, but the policies Pawlentyism derives from them are inadequate to the daunting task that Americans have — let’s face it — set before themselves.
Given how grievously we’ve undercalculated the real debt burdens at the state, local, and federal levels, an “ambitious goal” of 5% economic growth is not just absurd but dangerously so. (Perhaps real growth is in reach with a massive and open-ended influx of immigrants who are ready to work cheap and stay off entitlements. Good luck with that.)
Given how weary America has become of its network of military actions, a bear-any-burden approach to muscular interventionism sweeps all our serious strategic questions under the rug. (Note: We Americans are fine with wars. It’s the massive and open-ended imperial mission of garrisoning “restive tribal areas” that we rightly lose patience for.)
And given how deeply all economic classes have been penetrated by dependency on perpetual federal wealth transfers, the “Sam’s Club Republicanism” that anointed Pawlenty its poster boy cannot be taken seriously when it proposes to “reform” the country and the GOP by replacing our system of targeted tax credits with one of out-and-out wage subsidies.
The cultural and economic problems America confronts are structural. The lifelong biological family is unable to reliably function as a source of social order. The size and scope of the criminal justice system is unsustainable and corrosive. The magnitude of privately held debt spins nightmare scenarios in the heads of policymakers already hesitant to undo a system of governance dedicated above all to artificially maintaining for Americans of every class a lifestyle many of them could not accomplish on their own.
That may feel compassionate — or even merely prudent — but on anything more than the most shortsighted of timelines, it is neither. The endemic subsidization on which our virtual prosperity depends is incompatible with any fair view of Americans as a free people. And against that most serious charge, Pawlentyism — no matter how conservative in its convictions, commitments, and attitudes — has no answer.
Does any Republican approach? For now, it’s difficult to answer yes. But the contours of a satisfactory alternative to establishment drift are easy to recognize.
In foreign policy, end our indefinite military garrisons, increase our ability to poke hard with a sharp stick at key moments and help our cornerstone allies in Europe and Asia better assert a constant regional presence.
On criminal justice, legalize soft drugs, clean up the appeals and capital punishment process, overhaul our corrupt (and corrupting) prison system, and reform and reintegrate felons.
On border issues, permit brief stays for true migrant workers, and demand an immediate choice between citizenship and deportation for resident illegal immigrants without criminal records.
On social issues, embrace the Tenth Amendment, and work to defeat and reverse judges who don’t just legislate from the bench but philosophize.
And on the defining issue of our time — subsidy and entitlement spending writ large — begin the urgent task of painstakingly unraveling the cocoon of incentives, payoffs, behavioral modifications, and socioeconomic engineering that has forced well-off, middle-class, working-class, and poor Americans to choose between greater prosperity and greater independence.
There’s no reason a Republican candidate can’t embrace these or similar positions. They amount to a post-establishmentarian vision of governance that steps outside the box created by misleading categories like “extreme” on the one hand and “centrist” on the other. And they sharply rebuke the sitting president.
Tim Pawlenty didn’t flop because Iowans are crackpots or Tea Partiers are wingnuts. It’s not extremism along the traditional political spectrum that grassroots Republicans (and independents and others) want. It’s an extreme departure from that spectrum, which has become — to say nothing of the parlous state of the left — a license and excuse for a great drift into inadequacy by conventional fusionism on the right.
If the candidates counted as the winners in the wake of Pawlenty’s departure don’t grasp that fact, they might have beaten him, but they’ll have joined him, too.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.