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Pawlenty and GOP afraid of political risks

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may have been just a chromosome away from the GOP vice-presidential nomination, but on election night he was acting the alpha dog in the wake of John McCain’s then-apparent presidential defeat at the hands of Democrat Barack Obama.

On ABC and NBC  the coiner of the phrase “Sam’s Club Republicans” pushed for a new direction for the GOP to meet changing requirements.

“The Republicans are going to go through a Dr. Phil moment,” Pawlenty told the ABC election night team.

“The party overall is going to have to do a better job of outreach,” Pawlenty assessed. “You can’t be a governing majority party in a nation that is changing so dramatically culturally demographically, technologically, economically. We can’t be a party that does so poorly with Hispanics, does so poorly with African Americans, has a 20-point deficit with women in many cases and expect that to result in a governing majority for our country.

“This is going to have to be a more pragmatic party a more solutions oriented party, where people’s real needs are. It’s going to have to be a more youthful party going forward. We’re going to have to turn the page. I think it will be a healthy process.”

Whether or not it is a healthy process or an exercise in self-destruction depends on how Republicans like Pawlenty define the operative term “pragmatic,” which not incidentally is a word right out of the progressive playbook. Pawlenty’s example to ABC of connecting with people at a pragmatic level was a very Democratic-sounding, “How are we going to pay for people’s higher education tuition?”

‘Bread-and-butter issues’

High tuition costs, energy and environmental concerns and health care costs are examples of “bread and butter” issues according to Pawlenty. Later in the evening in a conversation with Chris Wallace on Fox News, former GOP political strategist Karl Rove kept to the kitchen and discussed “kitchen table issues.” While expressing the same need for reevaluation Pawlenty noted, Rove had a better handle on how bread-and-butter, kitchen table issues, ought to be addressed by a “pragmatic” GOP.

“The [Republican] party is going to have to take a look at itself and figure out what it needs to do to modernize itself,” Rove said. “It’s biggest problem was we lacked credibility to talk with the American people about the things they were talking about around the kitchen table this fall: their jobs, their health care, their retirement security, their kids education and their kids college education.

“We can talk about taxes and we can talk about national security, but until the Republican Party gets comfortable with an agenda that makes sense to Americans whose instinct are center right, we’re going to suffer like we did tonight.”

When Wallace challenged Rove with the idea that there seems to be two camps within the GOP, one that wants to return to the principles of Reagan and another that wants to modernize the party and make it more expansive and more inclusive, Rove noted that those two positions are not mutually exclusive.

“Ronald Reagan didn’t walk in and say let’s make this party smaller,” he said. “He said let’s make this party bigger, Now we can’t exactly go back to 1980, America today is not 1980, it’s 2008 and there are new challenges facing the country.”

Rove’s thought is not exactly a new idea.

In March of 2007 David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times – “The folly of looking backward to Goldwater and Reagan” – which implied while government is not THE solution to problems, by the very nature of its extent, government today must be a PART of the solution.

Brooks’ premise is simple: Conservatism rose to prominence in the 1970s when people were right to think their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. The active paradigm was “liberty vs. power.” The common conception was big government meant less liberty.

That was then. Brooks noted that today non-ideological Joe and Jane, Juan and Juana or whomever and whomever are sitting around the kitchen table facing large amorphous threats like having their jobs outsourced, rising energy prices, loss of health insurance, deteriorating schools for their kids and the uncertainty caused by the recent economic turmoil. They don’t see their own government as the No. 1 threat to their personal freedom. He wrote:

“People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable, secure homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities.”

The “liberty vs. power” paradigm of the Reagan era has been replaced with a “security leads to freedom” model. That switch doesn’t end debate between right and left, says Brooks, it just engages it on a different ground.

Joe and Jane aren’t listening
In the Pioneer Press at the time, with Pawlenty and the Minnesota GOP in mind, I wrote :

“Unfortunately, the Minnesota GOP doesn’t get that, or, if it does, it hasn’t figured out how to engage the DFL in the new paradigm. That’s why the DFL can run wild with economy-killing tax proposals, stomp on charter schools and vouchers to ‘save’ the status quo education system, and create the illusion that government-provided universal health care coverage is the same as being able to see a doctor when you need to.”

It was obvious then and obvious now that Joe and Jane aren’t listening to the conservatives on these issues because their head-shaking “no big government” (and no new solutions) strategy offers neither security nor freedom. Joe and Jane aren’t responding to GOP moderate proposals because they aren’t that much different than Democratic proposals – except that they offer less of whatever it is that makes the proposals seductive in the first place.

In the state and on the national level, the challenge for the GOP is creating conservative policy that meshes with the “security leads to freedom” paradigm. The GOP needs a Ronald Reagan with a message for this time and this place that resonates with today’s voters – someone who understands that even in the guise of a government program, market mechanisms work and are worth fighting for even when the odds are long.

Pawlenty as governor has been reluctant to fight for principled proposals in the face of a state DFL majority. His “how are we going to pay for someone’s higher education tuition” example, a Democrat-Lite proposal if ever there was one, is a case in point. His reluctance to push for meaningful school choice in the face of a Democratic majority is another.

Pawlenty and other Republicans ready to ride to the rescue of the GOP don’t seem to understand that what made Reagan successful was that he had a core principles that determined where he would act and how he would act. Reagan didn’t start with issues, then calculate the odds and ultimately echo the Democrats with a Republican agenda. His principles determined his agenda.

Rove seems to get that. When Wallace asked him for a specific example of a Republican position that preserves conservative principles and makes sense to people’s kitchen table concerns, Rove replied immediately, decisively and specifically. “Health care.”

And Rove wasn’t talking about an integration of government and private health care corporations  that destroys the distinction and endangers individual liberty and the quality of health care. A proposal like that that came out of Minnesota’s Health Care Transformation Task Force.  Rove wasn’t talking about health care subsidies or government-run programs.

“The Republican Party can stand up and say: ‘Look. We believe everybody ought to own their own health insurance policy. You aren’t stuck in a job you hate because you are afraid of losing your health insurance. You’re able to buy auto insurance across state lines, why can’t you buy health insurance across state lines?’ We are the party that says we want the doctors and the patients to be in charge, yet we don’t articulate it with ease,” Rove told Wallace.

And then Rove put his finger on the problem for Republicans.

John McCain did put that idea forward, Rove said. “But he didn’t defend it. He didn’t articulate it. He didn’t sell it.”

That comment brings us back to the lack of faith in conservative principles and market mechanisms that motivate some Republicans thinking that Democrat light proposals are winners and fighting the odds with authentic conservative, free market principles is a political loser. Hispanics, African-Americans, youth, women and other non-traditional Republican constituencies aren’t going to trust Republicans to build credibility with these groups – unless they see Republicans taking political risks on their behalf. Ultimately, it’s not one’s chromosomes that make a leader, it’s how one uses them.

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