Will Wilkinson salutes Tim Pawlenty for attacking ethanol subsidies, and adds at the end:

David Frum asks whether Mr Pawlenty’s brave experiment in truth-telling is a “good way to manage expectations if he comes second or third or worse in Iowa, where Pawlenty is currently polling in single digits?” If he’s going to lose Iowa anyway, Mr Frum suggests Mr Pawlenty may be “smart to blow them off and score integrity points for later.” In any case, it’s good to hear the truth for once, never mind the motivation.

Yes, it is good to hear the truth, but what doesn’t make sense is why Pawlenty believes it is to his advantage to tell these truths to the constituencies he needs most. Every discussion of Pawlenty’s chances takes for granted that he must win or at least be extremely competitive in Iowa. He is nationally unknown, his fundraising is comparatively anemic, and he faces challenges from more charismatic, more conservative, and better-funded adversaries. So how does he begin his campaign? He tells Iowans that he wants to phase out ethanol subsidies, and he promises to tell financiers in New York that he opposes bailouts, and on top of it he is going to tell elderly voters in Florida that he wants to make changes to Medicare.

Of course, he didn’t oppose those bailouts when it was actually a test of political courage, and he has largely avoided committing to any existing Medicare reform proposal, and if Wilkinson is right Pawlenty’s support for a phase-out of subsidies is not nearly as politically toxic as it used to be. Pawlenty would like to acquire a reputation for political courage without having done much to demonstrate it in the past (and what politician wouldn’t?), but he seems to have things backwards. The time to be politically courageous was before now when Pawlenty was still in office. Attacking political sacred cows at the start of a long-shot presidential bid despite having no record for similar boldness in office seems to offer the worst of both worlds. The bold truth-telling can be dismissed as a campaign stunt, and it serves to alienate many of the voters and donors that an unknown such as Pawlenty must first win over.