By now Tim Pawlenty’s exalted status on the ad nauseam lists of GOP VP contenders is news to exactly no one around here. But in a political press that is equal parts deep-background chats and follow-the-pack regimentation, it’s hard to know whether you’re encountering a consensus about political intel or a very elaborate echo chamber. Until recently Marc Ambinder, the stalwart veep-chaser of the Atlantic, was one of the few journalists to ascribe the Pawlenty talk expressly to McCain campaign insiders.
So it seems noteworthy that within the past week, no fewer than three major publications have published reports tracing Pawlenty’s top-dog standing to McCain officials. First came US News & World Report blogger James Pethokoukis; then, as Paul Demko wrote here last week, Noam Scheiber of the New Republic published a major profile of TP; and on Sunday, the Times of London chipped in with a 1200-word profile by Sarah Baxter, “Governor with ‘prole chic’ tipped as John McCain’s sidekick.”
ONE name has risen to the top of John McCain’s shortlist for vice-presidential running mate. Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, a trucker’s son and advocate of Republicanism for the masses, is the favourite to join his ticket, according to sources close to the McCain camp.
They believe that Pawlenty, 47, has the youth, working-class credentials and executive experience to attract independent voters and disaffected Democrats who find Barack Obama, 46, the Democratic party nominee, too exotic and untested and McCain, 71, too old and too focused on national security.
That “prole chic” label is a function of the New Republic piece, and both pieces tout a hard line on Pawlenty’s humble roots and his vision of “Sam’s Club” Republicanism, a phrase Pawlenty ginned up back in 2001 as he prepared his run for governor. But Pawlenty’s supposed economic populism is much less in evidence in both articles than his mastery of contemporary personality politics–which is to say, marketing.
One of the most revelatory bits in the New Republic piece, as Demko noted here previously, was Pawlenty’s engineering of the now-famous call from Dick Cheney asking him to bow out of the 2002 US Senate race. “After the White House privately threw its weight behind Coleman,” writes Scheiber, “Pawlenty negotiated the dramatic call as a kind of consolation prize. He reasoned that a personal plea from such a high-profile Republican would demonstrate that Washington took him seriously.” It was a deft, counter-intuitive, on-the-fly salvage operation that afforded Pawlenty a self-promotional boost from a potentially damaging turn of events, and it says more about Pawlenty the political animal than all his many soliloquies about growing up the son of a milkman laid end to end.
Speaking to the Times of London, Pawlenty put marketing front and center, offering a view of Republican renewal that was all about changing the package, not the contents: “I believe the Republican brand needs refreshment,” he said. “Our principles haven’t changed but the country is changing in terms of demographics, culture and technology and we need to make sure the Republican messenger has a modern message.”
This amplifies nicely the most resonant passage in Scheiber’s TNR profile:
Talking to Pawlenty at the American Legion hall, I got the impression his strain of Sam’s Club Republicanism is largely about marketing. I asked if the party could survive in its present form–with working-class people delivering more and more votes, but wealthy people providing most of the financing. “I don’t think it’s a class-warfare issue at all,” he told me. We were sitting at a brown folding table. Pawlenty kept his hands in his lap and leaned toward me, giving him the look of a dutiful grammar student. “We have to change not [our] values and principles–I want to be clear about that. … We’re going to have to do a much better job about having messengers, messages that resonate. … It helps if you could say, ‘Look, I’ve been in your spot. Let me tell you how it worked, didn’t work for me.'” Pawlenty may genuinely want to ease the strain on working people. But what he’s selling them is a self-help manual, albeit in language they can relate to. It’s not the party of Sam’s Club per se–but of moving from Sam’s Club to the country club in ten simple steps.
So there you have it. Tim Pawlenty: real purty mouth.