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Fisking Pawlenty's speech at the Tea Party summit

Tim Pawlenty
Tim Pawlenty

I wasn’t in Phoenix Saturday for the keynote speech to the Tea Party Patriots’ American Policy Summit by our former governor Tim Pawlenty. I was at my post on the tundra, watching the ice-dam situation ripen.

The national coverage suggests TPaw was politely received by the Tea Partiers, but AP writer Brian Bakst, whose story is mostly about what the audience said, couldn’t find any real enthusiasm for Pawlenty. “We need to have somebody who is going to go 'POOF' and appear and is going to take people by storm,” said the Tea Partier whom Bakst quoted.

Of course, the political analysis point of the moment is: Can Pawlenty become that guy? With Sarah Palin less and less likely to run for president, this important element of the Repub coalition may be up for grabs.

(Insert here some kind of aside about the possibility that our own Michele Bachmann, a much more Tea Partyish figure, might run. The Repub establishment continues to not take her seriously. David Brooks has a riff I’ve heard from him a few times that despite the apparent large field there are only a few “plausible” Repub nominees. He usually includes TPaw on that list. He never includes MBach.)

CNN led its Phoenix coverage with a pure political analysis play, thus: “With no Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich or other potential presidential candidates in attendance, Tim Pawlenty did not have to elbow much for speaking and face time with conservative activists gathered at the American Policy Summit in Phoenix on Saturday.”

Politico led with the surprising mild-mannered-Pawlenty-throws-red-meat-angle, thus: “Tim Pawlenty rallied tea partiers on Saturday with a fiery, combative call to overthrow big government and defeat union-‘coddling’ President Barack Obama.”

Personally, I find little insightful about the political analysis nor anything surprising about Pawlenty bashing “big government” nor about his slamming public employees unions and least of all about him slamming Obama as a union “coddler.”

The speech was largely a compendium of applause lines from previous TPaw speeches. This is no criticism. Candidates (declared or undeclared) cannot produce fresh meat, red or otherwise, when they are speaking almost every day. So what to do with such a speech? My answer, at least for today, is a mild Fisking, which is a term righty bloggers occasionally use for publishing a full text and interrupting with facts, thoughts and questions along the way.

Being a mild-mannered sort (like TPaw when he isn’t in red-meat mode trying to live down his reputation for being “too nice”), I’ll just say in advance that although many of the Pawlenty statements are easily mocked or rebutted — and I plan to shoot some of the fish in that barrel — the speech was probably above average for accuracy (there actually are relatively few factual statements in the speech) and reasonableness and civility (viewer discretion warning: the ex-governor will be using the word “damn”) by the debased standards of contemporary political speechmaking.

Without further ado, here’s TPaw as lightly Fisked by EBla.

Pawlenty: “I’m here today to say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for standing up to the ‘ruling class.’ Thank you for standing up to the liberal power brokers, guardians of the status quo, and the royal triangle of greed: big government, big unions and big bailed out businesses.”

Me: Republicans, including TPaw, stand for many things. But the single most enduring, the sine qua non of current Republicanism, is the importance of sheltering the wealthiest American citizens and corporations from taxes. The poor and the middle class who received government benefits, and public employees who received pay and benefits from tax dollars, will have to make shared sacrifices so that the wealthy and powerful can be spared any sacrifice at all. Yet TPaw is one Republican who wants a referendum on “greed” and wants to stand up against the “ruling class.”

If Democrats cannot figure out a way to make Republican invocations of “greed” and “ruling class” into politically advantageous rhetoric, we might as well stop having elections.

Pawlenty: “Thank you for being modern day Paul Reveres — rallying Patriots to the cause of this great nation. The promising work of Governors Walker, Kasich, Christie, and so many others is the direct result of the dedicated Patriots in this room and across the country who had enough, stood up, fought back, and are restoring this country’s foundation.

“Our Founders put it in terms so simple even a politician should be able to understand: They started with a most important principle: They didn’t say we’re endowed by our member of Congress or we’re endowed by our bureaucrat.

“They said we’re endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights — and that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. And what government did our Founders institute and our Fathers ratify? The one that begins, ‘We the people.’”

Me: Be careful. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are different documents, written more than a decade apart, mostly by different men and for completely different purposes. Pawlenty is slipping from one to the other. (I don’t imply there’s anything tricky or dishonest in this, just keeping things straight.)

“Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” including the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are phrases from the Declaration. I’ve always loved the poetry of the passage, although it was not original to the document.

But the way TPaw used it may also be a special dog whistle to the “natural rights” and “natural law” righties who believe that God (or “nature”) is the source of rights, or some rights anyway. These are deep waters in which I personally feel over my head. I don’t know where Pawlenty is on this spectrum. But the document on which our U.S. governmental and legal systems fundamentally depend, the one that begins “we the people,” the U.S. Constitution including amendments, makes no reference to God or the Creator or natural rights.

Pawlenty: “The message of the Tea Party, as I see it, is simple. God made us to be free, and the Founding Fathers made the Constitution to keep us free. And just about every problem our country faces today comes from a rejection of one of those two principles. And every solution we need today will come from a return to those core principles. The Constitution was not written to limit freedom, it was written to limit government.”

Me: This stuff will bring the house down at righty events and it is pure gold for Republicans who have used these principles to redefine the core concept of government as the opposite of freedom and liberty. For an anti-government party, it has been incredibly convenient to define freedom as the absence of government and to define everything the government does as a subtraction of freedom (a recent example would be the freedom to go without health insurance).

But the concrete legal/historical statement at the end of TPaw’s paragraph above, the one I bold-faced, is purest rubbish. The Constitution was written to create a far more powerful national government than the one that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

Politically smarter people than me seem to have determined that it is not possible for the left, or liberals, or progressives, or whatever they are allowed to call themselves, to stake a public rhetorical claim to being the heirs of the Founding Fathers nor even to be defenders of freedom. But, however politically incorrect it may be to point this out, the Constitution was written by the big government men — especially the big federal government men — of their time.

Pawlenty: “It appears President Obama has forgotten what this says. (Here, TPaw is waving a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution.) It says in the Constitution: ‘In order to form a more perfect Union….’ Mr. President: that does not mean coddling out-of-control public employee unions.”

Me: I assume Pawlenty is trying to make a funny play on a double meaning of “union” as a segue to the endorsement of Gov. Walker’s effort to greatly limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions in Wisconsin, but it’s hard to follow the joke. Is a more perfect union one in which labor unions are prohibited from bargaining over their benefits?

Anyway, the Framers weren’t talking about that kind of union. The “more perfect Union” stuff in the preamble to the Constitution was a direct reference to the new, stronger federal government that the Framers framed. Read the preamble. It’s very short, fairly vague, but full of things the new, stronger federal government was supposed to do, not things it was supposed to not do. Yes, one of the items on that to-do list is to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” but to believe that means what TPaw and the Tea Partiers might want it to mean is circular and illogical thinking. The early republic, under the Articles of Confederation, was the less perfect union because it lacked a national government with enough powers to do the basic things outlined in the preamble, including to secure the blessings of liberty.

Pawlenty: “And Mr. President, Wisconsin does not need a lecture from somebody who’s never balanced a budget in his life. 

“Speaking of Wisconsin, will you join me in applauding Governor Walker for standing strong against overreaching unions?”

Me: I assume that Pawlenty, as a governor who was required to balance the state’s biennial budgets, is setting himself in contrast to Obama, whose job as president allows him to run deficits and whose former jobs as a state legislator and a U.S. senator didn’t put him in charge of the budget. But if there’s any real point to the observation, it has to be about balancing the federal budget.

Of the last 10 presidents — five Dems and five Repubs — only one ever managed a single year of even an arguably balanced federal budget. That was Bill Clinton.

Ronald Reagan, whom TPaw will mention in his closing as the personification of America, set the record for the highest deficit ever during his first year in office, then broke it his second year and again his third year, then twice more before he was done. Of course, it’s been broken several times since then, most recently by Obama.

The number of current prospective Repub candidates for prez, not including Pawlenty, who have proposed a path to a balanced budget: Zero.

Now including Pawlenty: Still zero.

Considering the centrality of the deficit issue in the Tea Party universe, I’m seriously wondering when the Partiers will start demanding that one of their suitors tell them concretely what it will take to balance the budget and when it will be done. (Let’s call this last harangue Point A so I can refer to it later by shorthand.)

Of course, no Democratic candidates in 2004 or 2008 put out a balanced budget proposal either, nor has President Obama outlined a path to balance.

Pawlenty: “Now, I’m not one who questions the existence of the President’s birth certificate. But, when you listen to his policies, don’t you at least wonder what planet he’s from? We don’t share President Obama’s worldview.”

Me: There are no facts nor logical arguments to be dissected in this rhetorical it’s-not-what-country-but-which-planet device that Pawlenty has been using for a couple of weeks, but I think it’s pretty funny and has the added advantage of putting TPaw onto the endangered list of Republicans who explicitly accept that Obama was born in Hawaii and therefore meets at least that qualification to be president.

Pawlenty: “We don’t want a bigger government shoving mandates down our throats. He’s got it completely backwards. They, the bureaucrats, don’t tell us what to do. We, the people, tell the government what to do!

“My friends, we need to restore American confidence and American optimism by restoring American common sense. As Washington proves time and time again, not everyone’s born or elected with common sense.”

Me: “Common sense,” along with the liberty/freedom gag, is another great, if slightly amorphous abstraction for which Republicans frequently claim to stand. It was especially prominent during the late stages of the health care bill when Republicans — who were on the spot because they have not recently proposed an approach to substantially reduce the number of uninsured Americans — said that what they had were “common sense alternatives” like capping malpractice awards and allowing insurance companies to sell coverage across state lines without state regulation.

But I say again, if you can get the public just nodding its collective head when you claim to be the party of common sense, it should be electoral gold. Let’s call that rhetorical Point B.

Pawlenty: “We need leaders who remember where they came from, and what made this nation the greatest country the world has ever known. For me, that real world experience started in my hometown of South St. Paul, Minnesota — a place filled with good-hearted people, strong families and the rock-solid values of the heartland.

“When I grew up there, it was home to some of the world's largest stockyards and meat-packing plants. But when those plants shut down, so did a big part of the spirit and soul of my hometown. My mom died when I was 16 and later, my dad, who worked for a trucking company, lost his job for a while.

“The foundations of my hometown and my family were shaken hard. At a young age, I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship, the face of job loss — and I saw in the mirror — the face of a very uncertain future. I know many Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I lived it.”

Me: It’s true that Pawlenty comes from modest, blue collar roots. It’s impressive when you think about it, but Mitt Romney is the only one of the serious Repub field who comes from a privileged background. Still, Pawlenty is also different from many of his other potential rivals in that he has not gotten seriously wealthy off his political work, via a Fox News contract or on the speaking circuit or otherwise.

Pawlenty: “But in those moments, we learn some things. We remember what’s important. We simply need more common sense, and less Obama non-sense.”

Me: Point B.

Pawlenty: “And let’s start with this: It’s complex — and I know there may be some liberals watching this — so I’ll say it slowly so they can follow along: We can’t spend more than we take in.”

Me: Point A.

Pawlenty: “You can't do it as an individual, a family or a business. And we can’t let our government do it anymore! Just because we followed Greece into democracy, does not mean we should follow them into bankruptcy!

“Big government spenders come with excuses. They say, ‘Oh, Governor, how do you do that? It's too hard. The politics are difficult and the unions are too tough.’

“I know something about the spenders — and I know something about difficult. I'm from the state of United States Senator Al Franken.

“But we cut government in Minnesota. If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere. It wasn’t easy. I set a record for vetoes. Had the first government shutdown in Minnesota’s history. Took one of the longest transit strikes in the country’s history to get public employee benefits under control. And, I cut spending in real terms for the first time in the history of my state.

“My friends, it’s time for the federal government to do the same. We should not raise the debt ceiling! We should pass a constitutional amendment to balance the budget!”

Me: Point A. Times 2.

But this may also be the biggest and most overlooked moment in the speech.

Perhaps TPaw really means we should block an increase in the debt ceiling unless Republicans can extract some particular amount of short-term savings in the domestic discretionary portion of the budget. But that’s not what he said. And he’s been saying for some time that the debt ceiling should not be raised. This would mean that the budget has to be balanced, right away. There is no plan in sight to do that and anyone who put out such a plan would probably be struck down by lightning on the spot, and even moreso if it was, as Pawlenty’s presumably would be, an all-cuts, no-new-taxes plan.

After the speech, Pawlenty expanded a bit, to ThinkProgress, on this matter. His main point was that a government shutdown is not such a big hairy deal as the rhetoric makes it sound. Maybe so. This exchange happens to come just as the Repub congressional leadership has signaled clearly that they do not seek a shutdown and a deal is in the works to prevent one. Either TPaw missed that memo or he is just saying something you say when you are seeking credibility with the Tea Party.

A refusal to raise the debt ceiling is actually a much bigger deal than just forcing a government shutdown. Most economists believe the debt ceiling maneuver would trigger a global loss of confidence in U.S. creditworthiness, thus calling into question the value of all the U.S. bonds in circulation.

TPaw has described a plan for saving our credit rating (the magic word is “sequencing”), although it sounds fanciful to me and it had better be airtight if anyone seriously goes down that road.

Pawlenty: “We should appoint judges who will not legislate from the bench. We must repeal Obamacare! And we must throw the ridiculous federal tax code overboard!

“And let’s require, under penalty of perjury, every member of Congress to do their own tax returns without the help of a tax preparer, accountant or lawyer. Let them experience firsthand the mind-numbing, burdensome, frightening beast our tax system has become.”

Me: I am with Pawlenty on this. I favor a radical simplification of the tax system. But is Pawlenty aware that the biggest beneficiaries of almost all those deductions, credits, exclusions and loopholes are rich people and big corporations? Let’s see that tax plan.

Pawlenty: “Do you remember the guy who ran in the NYC mayor's race who ran his entire campaign on a simple motto: He said over and over: ‘The rent is too damn high.’ So here’s our simple motto: ‘The Government’s too damn big!’”

Me: Perhaps you missed this guy. But The Rent Is Too Damn High Party has competed in the last two NYC mayor’s races and the 2010 race for governor.

I predict we will hear this government-too-damn-big line from Pawlenty again and, in the fullness of time, he will describe the government functions without which he believes we can do.

Pawlenty: “Americans need jobs, not more government-forced anything. The private sector, not government, is the answer to job creation. We shouldn’t ask Washington D.C. how to create jobs. We should ask the people who actually provide the jobs!

“Their answer is clear and simple and it’s this: ‘Reduce my costs and get government off my back.’ Ladies and gentlemen, America needs job growth, not government growth!”

Me: This free-the-job-creators gag is certainly another of the top Repub talking points. Has anyone noticed that corporate profits have risen for the past seven consecutive quarters and are now at record highs, the compensation of top executives is all the way back, the stock market is most of the way back from its crash and the one thing that isn’t back is employment? Please explain.

Pawlenty: “My friends, none of this is going to be easy. If prosperity were easy, everybody around the world would be prosperous. If security were easy, everybody around the world would be secure. And if freedom were easy, everybody around the world would be free. They’re not.

“It takes extraordinary effort. It takes extraordinary commitment. It takes extraordinary strength to stand up to those who oppose these principles. But we can do it.

“Valley Forge wasn't easy. Settling the West wasn't easy. Winning World War II wasn’t easy. And Going to the moon wasn’t easy. This ain't about easy. This is about rolling up our sleeves, plowing forward, and getting the job done.

“This is our guide. This is our Constitution. ‘We, the People of the United States’ will rise up again. We will take back our government. This is our country.

“Our Founding Fathers created it, Americans embraced it, Ronald Reagan personified it and Lincoln stood courageously to protect it. Now, as ever, ‘This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom....’ Our ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth….’ and America will remain the greatest country the world has ever known.

“Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America!”

Me: Well, now I’m feeling a little silly for picking this little speech, which won’t be long-remembered, for such extensive attention. If TPaw was actually a player in the Repub shutdown-debt-ceiling game plan, this would be a big deal, but he isn’t. Otherwise, it’s just an effort by a rising (he’s definitely rising at the moment) contender to package his developing stump speech for a potentially important element of the Grand Old Coalition.

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Comments (15)

Third Black story in a row... that I'm not gonna read.

I’m sure it’s time-consuming, but I like this “Fisking” approach, Eric, especially if it’s something done with regularity or frequency by the commentariat listing to the right. Anything that serves as a counterpoint to the incessant bleating of right-leaning sheep seems worthwhile to me.

Point A and Point B are well taken, but I’m in particular agreement with this line: “If Democrats cannot figure out a way to make Republican invocations of “greed” and “ruling class” into politically advantageous rhetoric, we might as well stop having elections.” The sheer ineptitude and timidity with which Democrats, from Washington to St. Paul, have routinely greeted distortions and outright lies from the right wing is simply astounding.

The party that has adopted the agenda of big corporations and the wealthy lock, stock and barrel has managed to appropriate the “populist” label, while the party that has, for the past century, represented the vast majority of working Americans, has struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to shed the “elitist” label. The irony is truly mind-boggling, and if George Orwell were alive, I feel sure he’d have something to say about it, and more eloquently than I.

These 'tea party' speeches are so tiresomely predictable.

...We will take back our government. This is our country....

It already is 'their' government. It already is 'their' country.

But it is also MY government and MY country.

Their definition of country and government is based on fear, personal greed and exclusion.

And that is why 'their' country and government would be a bad thing.

//These 'tea party' speeches are so tiresomely predictable.


Neal (and maybe Paul), I'm sure you were equally bothered by Dem rhetoric during the Bush years about 'taking back the country' and such. This is a regular talking point from the party that doesn't have the Presidency.

Eric, I think you should at least mention Ryan's roadmap when you talk about long term debt. As far as I know there is nothing equivalent from the Dems. And by the healthcare debate rule that you couldn't really oppose something unless you had a solution, that means that Dems don't have a leg to stand on here. And this is a smaller point, but if Mitch Daniels runs for the GOP, then there will be at least one candidate who has passed a balanced budget.

Peder (#5), I think much of the nuance of political discussion was lost in the blunderbuss of "Either you're with us..." and "Stand up and salute..." rhetoric of the Bush administration. The Rovian demonization of Democrats that began in the mangled insanity of the Clinton administration allegations did the country no favors and has pushed us into a very bad spot where meaningful compromise and progress cannot be made.

It is a very childish form of politics--if one party is for it the other is against.

What is democracy without compromise?

It is tyranny by party.

And if you want to talk about the Ryan plan, there is this comment from the NRO


But, and this caveat is a whopper, CBO assumed this wonderful outcome would occur only if the revenue portion of Ryan’s plan generated 19 percent of GDP in taxes. And there is not the slightest evidence that would happen. Even though Ryan’s plan has a detailed tax component, his staff asked CBO to ignore it. Rather than estimate the true revenue effects of the Ryan plan, CBO simply assumed, as the lawmaker requested, that it would generate revenues of 19 percent of GDP.

If the Obama White House tried to pull this, we’d rightly draw attention to it. Granted, Ryan’s office doesn’t have the same analytical resources as the OMB. But we need a more plausible solution on the revenue side. Gleckman continues.

On the tax side, [the Roadmap] would make some huge changes. Ryan would: turn the current exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance into a refundable credit; allow people to choose to pay either under the current income tax system or a two-rate, broad-based alternative; replace the corporate income tax with a business consumption tax, and exclude from tax dividends, capital gains, interest, and estates.

We don’t have any idea what this plan would do to revenues, but in some ways it resembles former GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson’s campaign plan. TPC figured that scheme would reduce tax revenues by between $6 trillion and $8 trillion over 10 years. Unless Ryan can achieve unrealistically large cuts in spending as well, this is not exactly a roadmap to solvency in my book.
(end quote)

Ryan's road map only has right turns on it.
And it balances the budget mostly through hand waving (unrealistic assumptions about increased revenue as a result of tax cuts, which has no basis in actual history).

Neal, if you don't think that demonization is a bipartisan game then you really have to get out and read more. Just harken back to the Bush years, when he was often depicted as a complete monster. Just this morning I read that Cheney is an actual fascist, which shows incredible ignorance, but there you go.
The Ryan roadmap is by necessity a bare instrument. It isn't heavily detailed on the tax side, instead relying heavily on figuring what spending would need to look like with receipts around 19%, which is right in the historical range. There is a ton of detail work that would still need to be done but it shows a general outline. If Dems want to match even this bare attempt at debt reduction it would be nice.

All of it is well summed up here :

To summarize Eric's points. When TP speaks to a needed constituency, he allows his rhetoric to drift in the audience's direction, by giving a "oompendium of applause lines from previous speeches".

Tea Partiers are not excited by TP. But most of the people who do excite them are either not going to run or just plain don't have the discipline needed to run a multi year national campaign. So at some point, Tea Partiers will realize that a vote for Palin or Bachmann is cathartic, but will not land the White House (xref. Ralph Nader). At that point they "vote their heart" or they look to a Pawelenty, Barbour, Huckabee, etc.

Isn't it interesting how quickly people forget that throttling down your government makes bridges fall down?

Oh, I get it now, the "ruling class". It's not the super rich heads of multinationals, the yammering corporate shrews at the Chamber of Commerce, the billionaire hedge fund managers, subsidized super profiting oil companies, billionaire insurance executives and overpaid lobbyists for corporations. It's those nasty filthy rich public employees, labor unions, "big government" (which really exists to make the world safe for "big corporation", and the objects of the bailout. If you believe this line of demogoguery then I feel sorry for you and a lot more sorry for our country.

First of all:
"receipts around 19%, which is right in the historical range" -- but the whole point is that we're in a recession which is NOT within the historical range (if that term has any meaning -- literally, anything is within the historical range).
So basically he's saying that if we weren't in a recession things would be better. Lot's of help.

And of course, debt reduction can be done on both the receipt and spending sides. There's a good economic argument that a moderate increase in taxes for the non-rich (those who are likely to spend the extra income in the United States) would stimulate the economy by putting more money in circulation (we've seen a small example of that already).

> it’s pretty funny and has the added advantage of
> putting TPaw onto the endangered list of
> Republicans who explicitly accept that Obama was
> born in Hawaii

The whole point of this little tidbit is to activate the birther meme in the minds of the tea partiers while at the same time allowing Pawlenty to claim that he doesn't share their ridiculous notions.

It's politically astute, exactly what Lakoff talks about in "Don't Think of an Elephant!"

Paul, in the postwar period the tax receipts have stayed in a tidy range from 15% to 20%. This is through several administrations and tax policies. None of them have been able to go higher than 20%. That's the top end of the historical range. (IIRC the average is pretty close to 18.5%.)
If you want spending that is much higher than that then you're planning on deficits. Or you've come up with a brand new way of taxation that wealthy people won't be able to write themselves out of and frankly, I'll believe that when I see it.
And I'm still waiting for the lib/Dem/progressive/leftist alternative. Obama has decided that he doesn't really want responsibility here. Either do congressional Dems. Is there a plan of some sort out there or is the long term strategy really to just keep attacking the GOP?