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Avoiding the Pawlenty Trap

Ross Douthat recently advised Christie against falling into the trap of embracing all of his donors’ policy ideas:

But some will be terrible, because the right’s donors are loath to acknowledge that their party’s biggest problem isn’t gay marriage or immigration or even the disastrous government shutdown. It’s a brand identity, cemented by Mitt Romney’s persona and “47 percent” remark, as the handmaiden of Big Business and the rich [bold mine-DL].

To alter that identity, you’ll need substance as well as regular-guy style: a tax plan that doesn’t play just as a giveaway to the 1 percent, a health care plan that isn’t just a defense of the pre-Obamacare status quo, an approach to spending that targets corporate welfare as well as food stamps.

It’s not bad advice as far as it goes, but what indications do we have that Christie is interested in altering the party’s identity in this way? Whenever Republican candidates try to promote policies that could be plausibly described as economically populist, they inevitably run into enormous resistance from the party’s donors, and candidates that don’t frighten the party’s donors reliably reinforce the party identity that Douthat wants to alter. The party’s donors naturally don’t want to admit that this identity is a major problem for the party because that would mean that they are part of that problem. So far, there are no signs that Christie believes that they are.

If Christie can’t or won’t put any substance behind populist rhetoric, he might be better off avoiding the rhetoric as well. The hopeless Tim Pawlenty campaign is an example of the pitfalls of substance-free pseudo-populism. Like Christie, Pawlenty’s appeal “on paper” was that he was a two-term governor from a reliably Democratic state, and therefore just as competitive nationally as Romney and perhaps even more so. Pawlenty was supposed to have an ability to appeal to working-class voters thanks to his background and his rhetoric about “Sam’s Club Republicans,” and there were hints early on in the campaign that Pawlenty imagined himself playing the role of a more electable Huckabee-type candidate in the 2012 field. As we all know, Pawlenty campaigned on an agenda that had nothing to do with economic populism of any kind, and instead endorsed policies that seemed designed mainly to appeal to the editors of The Wall Street Journal rather than to voters in early caucuses and primaries. The combination of phony populist theatrics and utterly conventional policy ideas put him in the awkward bind of not being able to raise money or win over voters.

Pawlenty’s campaign should be a warning for Christie in another way, which is the peril of being built up too much early on as a “top tier” candidate before the candidate is able to live up to the expectations that go along with that position. For whatever reason, Pawlenty was instantly taken seriously as a leading contender for the nomination, and he made the mistake of believing the hype. Setbacks and mistakes that might not have quickly ended an insurgent’s campaign were considered fatal for his, because he was being judged by the same standard that was being applied to the frontrunner with all of his advantages. Christie’s predicament is arguably even worse than Pawlenty’s, because he is being built up into the frontrunner at an extremely early stage without much justification. Christie is obviously different from Pawlenty in a number of ways, so he may be able to avoid the latter’s fate, but that should be a reminder that candidates that appear plausible and electable “on paper” sometimes have shockingly little appeal on the national level.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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