In 2007, I attended the biggest conservative annual confab, CPAC. One speaker after another tried to outdo each other for the biggest tall tale, the loudest embrace of Reagan or the most outrageous slander of liberals.
But one speaker sought to challenge conservative orthodoxy: Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty exhorted conservatives not to be “Country Club Republicans,” but “Sam’s Club Republicans” who stand up for middle-class interests. And meant ending the ban of cheap prescription drugs from Canada, investing in clean energy and doing something to expand health insurance coverage to millions.
It was a quietest crowd response I heard at CPAC.
At the time, the Weekly Standard reported the speech as successfully winning over skeptical conservatives. But that certainly wasn’t my impression.
And I don’t think it was Tim Pawlenty’s either.
Faced with a conservative base drowning in the Tea Party fever swamp, Pawlenty never dared to distinguish himself from the presidential primary field as a “Sam’s Club Republican.”
He didn’t rebut the right-wing screeching about “ObamaCare” even though the approach of the Affordable Care Act is exactly what Pawlenty urged in 2006. Instead, he denied his past words.
He didn’t call upon Republicans to pursue a market-based approach to capping carbon emissions and investing in clean energy. Instead, he called his past support for “cap-and-trade” just one of his “clunkers.”
He didn’t propose any tax reform geared to Sam’s Club shoppers. Instead, he offered more the Republican same to the country club.
Instead of having a candidacy that was about something and based on his true beliefs, he flailed about as a milquetoast mimic of wingnut soundbites … until his pathetic showing in the Ames straw poll prompted him to put his campaign out of his misery.
Perhaps Pawlenty was acting rationally. Perhaps there is simply no home in today’s Republican Party for even a smidgen of sanity, a dose of reality, an ounce of fact-based policymaking on behalf of the middle class.
But Pawlenty’s fizzle proves that there is only so much pandering to the conservative fringe that the market can bear. There isn’t enough room on the stage for eight candidates all mouthing the same crackpot lines.
What if Pawlenty stuck to his vision?
What if Pawlenty tried to shake up a Republican Party that hit its highest unfavorable rating in CNN polling history after the public recoiled from its debt limit posturing.
What if Pawlenty spoke to votes how a leader speaks to adults, instead of how a demagogue speaks to lunatics?
Might he have found a constituency that no one is bothering to tap, enough to win if conservatives split their votes among the other candidates??
And more importantly, might he have forced his party to rethink the extremist path the Tea Party is leading it down?
It’s a theory Pawlenty proved to meek to test.
He may have lost anyway. But in running as just another conservative, he not only lost big, he’ll also be forgotten quickly.
Are you paying attention Jon Huntsman?