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Pawlenty and the Limits of Identity Politics

Ross Douthat is similarly unimpressed with the case for Pawlenty as VP:

But if Romney picks Pawlenty in order to make an identity-politics play for blue collar votes in the suddenly up-for-grabs Upper Midwest, he’ll be risking making the same mistake that the McCain campaign made with Sarah Palin, and that Pawlenty himself made when he competed unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination last year: Assuming that an appeal based on identity is a substitute for an appeal based on substance.

Ross is right that Palin and Pawlenty both became extremely conventional Republicans on the national stage. In Pawlenty’s case, this was even more debilitating. He is horrible at the politics of resentment that Palin cultivated so successfully, which prevents him from inspiring positive visceral reactions and loyalty as Palin was briefly able to do. This has nothing to do with being too “nice,” but it does mean that Pawlenty is not very good when it comes to indulging in symbolic culture war fights. At the same time, his policy views follow the standard party line. There is nothing remotely interesting or new about any of them. Even at the state level, Pawlenty wasn’t nearly as creative as he’s sometimes given credit for, and he became even less so as a national candidate.

Pawlenty’s “Sam’s Club Republican” rhetoric didn’t mean very much until it was given substance by others, and once Pawlenty started his presidential bid he steered clear of anything related to the policy ideas of reformist Republicans. The idea of Pawlenty as a populist has never been very credible, and Pawlenty himself is a bit like Huckabee without the charm or the chip on the shoulder. Pawlenty lacks whatever it was that made so many evangelicals and working-class voters identify with Huckabee as “one of them.” The identity politics appeal of Pawlenty is greatly exaggerated. If Romney selected him, he would be accused of embracing identity politics, but he probably wouldn’t reap most of the political benefits normally associated with it.

As I was saying yesterday, working-class tokenism isn’t going to work for Romney for the same reason that all forms of political tokenism don’t work. It is a transparent attempt to con people whose interests you don’t represent into supporting an agenda that does absolutely nothing for them. Just as making Rubio the running mate would not “solve” the GOP’s weakness among Hispanic voters, putting Pawlenty on the ticket would not be able to obscure the fact that working-class Americans have not benefited and do not benefit from the GOP’s economic agenda.

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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