There are some conclusions to draw from the failure of Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, which mercifully ended today, but Ben Smith’s suggestion (via Andrew) that this represents the failure of “Sam’s Club” Republicanism is a bit of a stretch:
It also marks a failure of the Sam’s Club conservative brand Pawlenty sought, at times, to personify.
That notion of a populist conservatism with a blue-collar edge fit Pawlenty’s story, and his denunciations of the trifecta of Big Government, Big Labor and Big Business fit its populist model.
As Smith notes, Pawlenty didn’t propose any policies informed by this, and his economic plan was notable for how little it focused on including any provisions that would have mattered to working- and middle-class voters. The main idea behind Ross and Reihan’s Grand New Party was that the Republican Party should actually try to serve the interests of its constituents with policies aimed at providing services and benefits. They took Pawlenty’s “Party of Sam’s Club” rhetoric and tried to make it into a policy agenda, but Pawlenty didn’t govern according to anything like that agenda, and he certainly never campaigned on it. We have to make a distinction between Pawlenty’s pseudo-populist use of his biography in his stump speeches and a policy agenda that was at least attempting to address problems of rising inequality, wage stagnation, and decreased social mobility that most Republican politicians ignore in their paeans to American exceptionalism.
Pawlenty’s failure mostly just reflects the flaws of Pawlenty as a candidate, but if it represents anything more than that it has to be a partial repudiation of the policy views that he actually promoted while he was running. Most Republicans found nothing interesting or desirable in Pawlenty’s uncritical embrace of neoconservatism. Like Santorum, Pawlenty spent an inordinate amount of his time as a candidate attacking the foreign policy of the administration and the rest of the 2012 field, but Pawlenty didn’t have Santorum’s excuse that obsessing over minor and non-existent threats has been his main preoccupation for years. In his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Pawlenty seemed eager to occupy the role of the party’s ideological enforcer, and it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that rank-and-file Republican voters don’t care about Syria and Libya. The one thing that clearly distinguished Pawlenty from the rest of the field was a foreign policy vision that far fewer Republicans find credible now than they did a few years ago. There will be other candidates promoting the same foreign policy views, but I doubt that any of them will be quite as eager as Pawlenty was to identify so completely with such discredited ideas.