For a man who can pile up the adjectives, Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty has gotten stuck with a single descriptor: “Nice.”
So economic growth under President Barack Obama — Pawlenty told me this week during a fund-raising stop in Atlanta — has been “laggard, anemic, below-average, pathetic.” Medicaid must be changed from a “one-size-fits-all, top-down, government-centric” program. And next year’s election will be “historic and impactful and transformative.”
But Pawlenty? To many voters, he’s just “nice.” Or “Minnesota nice,” if they feel chatty.
Despite being one of the earliest announced candidates and a frequent guest on TV talk shows, plus a two-term governor of a not-inconsequential state, Pawlenty only recently broke the 50 percent mark in name recognition among GOP voters in Gallup’s tracking poll. And nearly one in five Republicans surveyed by Gallup still shrugged their shoulders when asked for their opinion of him.
Having spent half an hour with the man Tuesday, however, I don’t know how conservatives can listen to Pawlenty for long and not put him at or near the top of their list.
For one, Pawlenty’s economic and moral arguments for reforming federal taxes blend supply-side theory with the tea party’s anti-bailouts populism.
“It’s not just [about] reforming the tax code because we want to make the tax code flatter, simpler, fairer,” Pawlenty said of his pledge to eliminate tax subsidies and loopholes, which he likens to earmarks. “It also reduces cronyism.
“It’s also a type of government reform … the tax code is also littered with these special credits, exemptions, deductions, that can be manipulated to a certain extent by politicians to give a special deal to a special group.
“And pretty soon, the premium for companies is not to connect to consumers but to connect to their member of Congress, which is not a fair, transparent market approach.”
For another, Pawlenty manages to praise U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who authored the House GOP’s long-term budget and entitlement-reform plan, while staking out somewhat different ground on Medicare and Social Security. And all without denigrating the plan (cough, cough, Newt Gingrich) as “right-wing social engineering.”
“We’ve got a country that’s in crisis, it is careening towards the cliff, and [Obama] refuses to do anything about it,” Pawlenty said. “He’s either unwilling, unable, doesn’t know what to do or lacks the courage to do it.
“So into the breach steps Congressman Ryan … and I applaud his effort. I did say that if my choice was to have the Obama plan, which is nothing, or the Ryan plan, I’d sign the Ryan plan. Now, that being said, we’re also going to have our own plan, which is going to have some differences … on entitlements.”
Among them: slowly raising the Social Security eligibility age for today’s younger Americans and eliminating cost-of-living adjustments for wealthy retirees as one of the “least bad choices” available. Details on age and income cutoffs TBA.
And, maybe the most important departure from the Ryan plan, on Medicare: The existing program would remain in place for all Americans, but it would have to compete with private plans on price and quality. Under Ryan’s plan, seniors would receive money to help them buy their own insurance.
Like all politicians — even proclaimed Washington outsiders — Pawlenty must avoid adopting a Beltway mentality. For example, he calls slowing the growth of Social Security payments a “benefit cut.”
But if you want someone who can beat Obama — and govern — on substance rather than style, you might find Pawlenty is more than “Mr. Nice Guy.”
NOTE: Check out the transcript of my entire interview with Pawlenty.
– By Kyle Wingfield