Matt Yglesias describes Pawlenty as “a generically orthodox conservative Republican who managed to win several elections in a somewhat left of center state.” That’s true, but slightly misleading. As I was reminded by one of the regular commenters, Pawlenty won both of his elections thanks to the peculiar three-way division that often happens in Minnesota gubernatorial elections. In 2002, he won with a plurality of 44%, and narrowly eked out a re-election win with 46.7% of the vote. So, yes, Pawlenty won in Minnesota, but he never won a majority, and that was despite being a rather conventional Bush Era Republican that Michael Gerson can find satisfactory.
It’s safe to say that any candidate that Gerson thinks is interesting is one that many other conservatives aren’t going to find very desirable, but Gerson overstates his case for Pawlenty the populist. Looking at Pawlenty’s record, I don’t find much that would substantiate Gerson’s claim that Pawlenty can campaign as the candidate of social mobility or economic populism. One can argue that Pawlenty governed in a way that was very satisfactory to fiscal conservatives and libertarians, which should cause Gerson to denounce him for his supposed heartlessness and inhumanity, but Pawlenty’s populism is nothing more than the usual folksiness and identity politics without anything behind it. Pawlenty wants to cultivate the image of the working-class, folksy populist, which makes Republican elites nervous, but he has no intention of following through with policies that might serve the interests of rank-and-file voters. That may explain why there seems to be so little enthusiasm for Pawlenty’s presidential candidacy at both the elite and the grassroots level.