President Obama was in Minnesota this weekend and Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota governor and unannounced 2012 hopeful, prepared a short video welcoming him. In it,Pawlenty introduced the president to a number of Minnesota phrases like “ooftah” and “yikes” and then used them to knock him on items like federal spending increases and the deficit.
Certainly there is nothing new about a presidential hopeful taking shots at the current officeholder over policy, but Pawlenty and his Midwestern pleasantness offers a peculiar specimen. Pawlenty employs quaint, inoffensive colloquialisms, combining them with what should be biting attacks over policy failures. The result: instead of feeling his or her blood boil, the listener feels a sense of calm optimism. Pawlenty goes on to contrast Obama’s record with his own very impressive and very innovative record in Minnesota. It’s this quality that led Michael Gerson to coin Pawlenty as “Minnesota’s Ronald Reagan.” It’s this same quality that brings into question whether Pawlenty, or any other mild-mannered and thoughtful candidate, can really be the man of the hour in today’s volatile political climate. When Pawlenty bites, especially when he bites with his Midwestern idioms, you just can’t get angry. The Cohen brothers, Minnesota natives themselves, masterfully demonstrated this phenomenon in the movie Fargo, where you couldn’t help but chuckle while crazed Minnesotans performed terrible acts of murder.
The question then becomes, can Pawlenty win this way? More specifically, can Pawlenty channel the anger of the Tea Party, a group that he defends and supports enthusiastically, into something positive? Furthermore, can he bridge the gap between the angry Tea Partiers and the increasingly overlooked body of GOP moderates and (most importantly) independent voters that have grown tired of Obama’s rhetoric and lack of progress on the economy? When you listen to Palin go after Obama, using the same sorts of phrases Pawlenty does, the result is so strikingly different. She has built her image upon scorning the liberal elite and “lamestream media” for their inability to use “common sense” solutions to our nation’s problems, but laces the message with a healthy dose of bitterness and spite born of the sense of marginalization that is such a motivating factor for much of the Tea Party.
Palin gets people riled up, she throws punches and they land. People like that. Pawlenty does not have that ability. But America does not rally, at least not en masse, behind angry candidates. Ultimately Palin cannot win enough hearts and minds to take a credible shot at the White House. Pawlenty’s hope lies in being the man that can bridge the gap between the anger of the Tea Party, the mainstream GOP, and the disenchanted voters in the middle. Can he do that? Can anyone do that? Some seem to think so, or at least hope so. He has received flattering columns from Michael Gerson, and George Will. As Will notes, Limbaugh ranks him number two to Palin, and Dick Armey has his eye on him. At the end of the day though, this attention isn’t worth much if his voice can’t be heard.