Grading on a curve

    Put your hands together for “TPaw,” because last night he was clearly the standout talent on stage in South Carolina at the first Republican debate of the ’12 presidential campaign.Of course, it’s not hard to look like a major-league hitter when you’re surrounded by fringe players who will never make it past T-ball. As expected, the debut debate was a pitiful embarrassment for the Republican party and Fox News, but that shouldn’t totally diminish what Tim Pawlenty managed to achieve. (His aides nicknamed him “TPaw” to give him some zing.) He made the most of his abysmal surroundings by doing the necessary spadework that might bear fruit in the Republican primary season.For instance, it was important that he kowtow to conservative voters by renouncing his past. As governor of Minnesota, he had actually dared to suggest that humans caused global warming and that humans therefore should take steps to make amends. He had signed a state bill recommending a cap-and-trade policy, he had publicly voiced support for “a reasonable cap-and-trade system” at the federal level, and he had even declared in a radio commercial that we should “cap greenhouse gas pollution now.”When the Fox questioners pointed out these heresies last night, the audience grumbled and booed. (You would’ve thought that he had signed a bill legalizing pedophilia.) In response, a chastened Pawlenty ate so much crow that he was spitting feathers: “It’s really a bad idea…I was wrong, it was a mistake, I am sorry…I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away, I’m just tellin’ ya, I made a mistake…I made a mistake.” (His “mistake,” of course, was that he stood up for science. Imagine that.)Another important task was to present himself as a fiscal conservative. The Fox questioners didn’t make it easy. They pointed out that he’s leaving Minnesota with a projected budget deficit of $6 billion. In response, he insisted that he’s really leaving the state “in the black,” and that the projected deficit “is based on preposterous assumptions.” The Fox questioners said that the projections were not preposterous at all, that the state will have to hike spending by 25 percent in order to compensate local school districts for all the money that Pawlenty borrowed to balance the books. In response, Pawlenty said it was the state legislature’s fault.Whatever. Most voters probably zone out on those kinds of details. The thing is, for Pawlenty, it could’ve been worse. The Fox hosts didn’t ask him about the various Minnesota fees he had raised over the years (he slapped a 75 cents-per-pack hike on cigarettes, to pay for health care programs), or about his ’08 support for a $109-million hike in corporate taxes. This is the downside of amassing a gubernatorial record; there’s always plenty of ammo. The Fox hosts may have wanted to drill deeper, but Gary Johnson (who? c’mon folks, Gary Johnson) was a few lecterns away, whining that he wasn’t being asked enough questions.Anyway, Pawlenty arguably trumped those in-state details by heaving chunks of raw meat to the crowd. He got palpable buzz when he denounced the federal health care reform law as “one of the most partisan and misguided pieces of legislation in the history of the country.” He denounced President Obama for intervening in Libya only after first securing the support of the U.N.; countering his image of Minnesota Nice, Pawlenty snarled the words United Nations as if they were synonymous with flesh-eating virus. It’s always de rigeur, in GOP primary season, to assail the U.N., and Pawlenty dutifully doubled down by referring to it as “that pathetic organization.” Meanwhile, on the education front, he dog-whistled the religious conservatives by voicing his support for the teaching of creationism in public schools.But his best moment probably came early in the show, when he denounced the National Labor Relations Board for trying to stop Boeing from bringing jobs to South Carolina. He brought it up on his own, and the crowd loved it. South Carolina stages one of the earliest GOP primaries; the Boeing story is a big deal there. The NLRB has filed a complaint saying that Boeing illegally seeks to shift unionized jobs out of Washington State, so the story is a bit more complicated than what Pawlenty laid out – he basically blamed it on Obama and called it “outrageous” – but what mattered last night, politically, is that Pawlenty seized the offensive. The Fox hosts had planned to raise the issue an hour into the debate, but Pawlenty owned it. A smart move.His other big task was to humanize himself as a humble-roots guy. He said early in the debate, “I grew up in a working-class family in a meat-packing town.” He said midway through the debate, “I grew up in a meat-packing town.” He said at the end of the debate, “I grew up in a working-class family.” (For his repetitive efforts, he thus wins the John Edwards “Son of a Millworker” Award.)He had his down moments, too. He mouthed the usual politician cliches about how America’s best days are still ahead (does any candidate ever argue otherwise?), and he straddled a few issues in ways designed to draw conservative voters without alienating the middle (on water-boarding terrorist suspects, he’s kinda OK with it, in some “limited circumstances,” but only when it’s “within our value system.”)But, hey, compared to his competitors last night, he was a cross between Cicero and Pericles. Rick Santorum was snarling as always about the evils of “radical feminism,” Ron Paul (who in 2008 raised $50 million and won nothing) opined that heroin should be legal, Gary Johnson said that “we should all live in the present,” and ex-pizza mogul Herman Cain (electoral experience? nada) couldn’t even summon a position on Afghanistan, saying only that he would heed “the experts and their advice and their input.”By the way, GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz convened a focus group last night, and those Republican folks decided that the winner of the debate was…Herman Cain. Huh? What? And here I thought the winner by a knockout was TPaw; after all, I was grading on a curve. But I guess I stand corrected. As national GOP chairman Reince Priebus laments about this sorry race, “There are numerous other candidates that are looking at it – and thank God.”

    Or as Bill Murray might put it, “This is one…nutty…Republican field!”

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