WASHINGTON – He stood on the stage a business evangelist, preaching the gospel of small government to a room full of Republican politicos who ate it up and prominent national journalists who took it all down.
Here at the National Press Club, where Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy each kicked off a presidential campaign, Tim Pawlenty didn’t. But he sounded for all the world like someone who will in just a few months’ time.
“This is not a matter of Right versus Left,” he said of the ballooning federal deficit, his voice rising like a country preacher’s, “this is a matter of common sense. This is a matter of 8th grade math!”
And then the zinger.
“Just because we followed Greece into democracy does not mean we have to follow them into bankruptcy!” The crowd roared. Pawlenty beamed.
Press Club president Alan Bjerga spotted the 600-pound gorilla in the room and pointed it out. Pawlenty likes to say it’s a book tour, Bjerga said, that officially began today. Later stops include Iowa, and New Hampshire, so “we will let you draw your own conclusions.”
The crowd, the journalists, and perhaps even the man standing at center stage did just that. One senses they came to the same conclusion.
Hope, version 2.0
Pawlenty began with a tale of hope, much as the man he hopes to replace once did.
“The American sense of hope is diminished,” he said to start, and later, “a sense that the American dream is slipping away. And I want to talk to you about restoring the American dream through restoring American common sense.”
When asked about their values, and what’s important to them, Pawlenty said most start out with faith or family, saying those things are most important in their lives. After that though, they continue on to their goals.
Finishing a basement. Paying off some debt. Maybe going to a Vikings game or taking a son or daughter fishing.
“You can’t do any of that unless you have money,” he said, “and the pathway for most Americans to have money is to have a job.”
For long-time Pawlenty watchers, there wasn’t much new the rest of the way, either in the speech or Q&A. There was a call to listen to businesses and entrepreneurs for economic advice, rather than bureaucrats.
Pawlenty blasted teachers unions, stumped for teacher merit pay and wholly embraced former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a move that went over well with the local, largely Republican crowd.
Pawlenty was asked twice about Sarah Palin, and in defense of her drew a parallel.
There’s a double-standard at play with Palin, Pawlenty said, unlike if “you went to, say, a certain, more prominent school in a different part of the country or you were the law review editor of some journal or something then all of a sudden that’s more valuable to the discussion than if you were in a place like Alaska or Minnesota, because there’s a little bit of a sense that maybe that’s not quite up to our standards.
“I don’t buy that.”
He also fielded a question on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, in which the man who might one day be commander in chief responded that his concerns weren’t assuaged by a survey showing that the military overall doesn’t mind gays and lesbians serving openly, because of an increased level of concern from front-line, combat troops.
His international message was the same as ever. Stand firm by Israel and other key allies. Show strength to bullies. Pass pending free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea while looking for more. And don’t be afraid to call out trading partners — China by name — when they don’t live up to their end of the bargain.
“I’m for free trade, but I’m not for being a chump,” he said to the approval of the crowd.
The very model of a modern presidential candidate
In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a stump speech (and one might be naïve to say it wasn’t a rehearsal for one).
“In times of crisis, leaders need to step forward,” he said. And boy, this week has been one big example of Pawlenty stepping forward.
Pawlenty has been seemingly everywhere this week — from “Good Morning America” to “The View” and the editorial board of the New York Times. His camp was so happy with the results of Wednesday night’s interview with “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, sometimes a tricky interviewer for conservatives, that they spent part of this morning forwarding on links to the video replay.
This evening, Pawlenty flies to Florida, the biggest and most critical swing state on the map. His book tour takes him to Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses and a state in which he’s already hired a paid staffer. He also flies to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary.
The final question was a twist on the familiar: What would make you decide not to run?
Pawlenty’s two considerations, he said, were the needs of the country and whether he fit them, and the “personal, impactful decision” about the effect a bid would have on his wife and children.
It’s a decision he said he’d make sometime before the end of March, but those in today’s crowd thought they knew the answer.