GOP candidates may have delicate line to walk to avoid ‘going too far’ in tonight’s Iowa debate

Tim Pawlenty meets with supporters in Ankeny.
REUTERS/Brian C. Frank
Tim Pawlenty meets with supporters in Ankeny.

Here we are in the midst of chaos again. There’s little confidence in the economy and virtually no confidence in political leaders.

And tonight eight Republican presidential hopefuls — each likely wearing an American flag lapel pin as a show of patriotism — will be on national television blasting away at the administration and its economic policies. In the process, those eight surely will create more anxiety and anger among the millions who will watch the debate Ames, Iowa, debate that airs at 8 p.m. on Fox News.

These already are desperate times for the candidates — especially Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who seems so close to falling out of the race for the Republican nomination race before it really gets going.

If Pawlenty is a debating dud again and if he’s not at least in the top three in Iowa’s straw poll on Saturday, he’s in danger of being taken about as seriously as such candidates as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, who are in tonight’s debate, and Thadddeus McCotter, who is not.

Can a candidate go too far?
But, in the name of patriotism, if these also are desperate times for the country, are there lines not even desperate candidates should cross?

Carleton College political science professor Steve Schier says there are boundaries, and they were created a couple of years ago by that other Minnesota presidential candidate.

“There is a line, and Michele Bachmann helped to establish it with her comments,” Schier said. “Anti-American is [going] too far, as are any comments that have a racial tinge to them. But expect lots of personal and policy attacks on Obama.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann campaigns in Polk County.
REUTERS/Brian C. Frank
Rep. Michele Bachmann campaigns in Polk County.

Bachmann has recovered nicely from the sentiments she uttered about “anti-American” members of Congress in a national interview before the 2008 elections. She’s recovered so nicely that she’s expected to win Saturday’s straw poll, assuming, of course, she doesn’t take another verbal pratfall.

Bachmann is doing well in this portion of the race because she simply can be herself, which thrills social conservatives and members of the Tea Party.

Pawlenty has been criss-crossing Iowa in search of a base. He’s built a big organization and he’s spent a lot of money, but he’s on the verge of becoming an also-ran.

Mixed messages for Pawlenty
He seems to be getting conflicting messages.

His old Minnesota supporters, off the record, say he made a big mistake in listening to the national consultants who told him to go after the Tea Party portion of the GOP.

The message he appears to be hearing in Iowa is go into the debate swinging hard — at the president, of course, but also at front-runner Mitt Romney and Bachmann.

In various stops in the state, Pawlenty has promised he’ll be the tough guy tonight. But if he swings too hard, he’ll risk sounding like Santorum.

What problems he faces.

He needs to attract Bachmann’s red-meat crowd to the straw poll Saturday. He wants to sound presidential. He needs to take a swing at Romney, after backing down against him earlier during a debate. Pawlenty’s also an old pro. He knows that Romney will be prepared to counter anything T-Paw fires his way.

So mostly, he’ll target the president. But even some of those attacks could sound hollow.

Mitt Romney campaigns in Des Moines.
Mitt Romney campaigns in Des Moines.

Pawlenty, for example, told the Des Moines Register that he was left with “a sinking feeling for the country” when the U.S. credit rating was downgraded.

“The country is in trouble, and we’ve got an inept president,” he said.

Tough words all right. But, ummmm …

In Pawlenty’s first year as governor, Moody’s downgraded Minnesota’s credit rating. And given the projected budget deficit he left the state, Pawlenty deserves at least half of the credit for this summer’s downgrade by Fitch’s.

But back to that original question: In crisis times, do candidates need to tone down the rhetoric for fear of making a situation even worse?

‘Raised rhetoric common in crisis times’
“No, no, no,” said retired University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman. “When you have a crisis, that’s when the rhetoric explodes. Look, the view of these people is that if they were president, things would be better. So even if their rhetoric would make things worse in the short term, that would be only temporary. When they become president, then it will get better.”

The one exception to the rhetoric rule typically is an international crisis, he said.

Berman noted that there’s little Republicans could say tonight that will offend most in the audience because most there will despise the president, while most of the rest of the country will have other things to do.

It’s unlikely that anything said in the debate will have an impact on the economy, says Art Rolnick, former director of research for the Minneapolis Fed and now a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute.

Harsh criticism of the president’s handling of the economy is OK, Rolnick said.

“Nothing unpatriotic about that, but my big question would be:’What would you have us do?’ ” Rolnick said

Rolnick says economy still resilient
Despite the economic fear and loathing loose in the land, Rolnick said, “the economy still is pretty resilient. I know people get worried. There are reasons to be worried. But the fundamentals — the factories are still there, the workers are still there — are sound.”

The big problem, high unemployment, is the area Rolnick thinks should become central to the debate.

“I know this is a difficult time if you’re unemployed,” he said. “And I know there are people who blame Obama. But I would say that there are times when there is going to be this sort of unemployment. The economy is the economy. You’re not going to have 3 percent growth every year. It’s for times like these that we have to have good safety nets so that people don’t fall through the cracks.”

But with eight candidates, some coming from the fringe, this is not likely to be a sophisticated, nuanced debate. Rather, it will be a sound bite debate with some candidates likely approaching that “anti-American” line that Schier said they must be careful not to cross.

No group proclaims to be as patriotic as the Tea Party Patriots.

Walter Hudson, chairman of Minnesota’s North Star Tea Party Patriots, was asked if, in times of crisis, those who would be leaders need to choose their words carefully.

“Patriotism is not the extent to which one refrains from criticizing a leader,” Hudson said.

The great patriots during the American Revolution were those “most critical of leadership.”

Tea Party’s Hudson sees few boundaries
In Hudson’s mind, there should be few boundaries for tonight’s debate.

“While the character of the president is certainly relevant, any judgments should be deduced from his words and actions,” Hudson said.

All of that said, Berman does say that all of the media and all of the distractions make it harder for any person to unify a party or a country.

“When Franklin Roosevelt spoke on radio, nothing else was going on in the country,” Berman said. “There were no distractions.”

Now there are distractions everywhere, and eight people will desperately be saying, “look at me!”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/11/2011 - 10:14 am.

    Rolnick may think that the central issue is unemployment, but really, what have any of thee Republicans proposed to do about unemployment?

    Oh yeah, cut taxes–because that’s what you do when the economy is good, when the economy is bad, when the economy is going sideways.

    And then, cut the safety net, because it’s too expensive for the decreased revenues that are the result of the decreased tax revenues.

    It would be interesting to see if any of the debaters could define “pro-cyclical” versus “counter-cyclical” policies.

    Can any one of those people provide a vision of what the country would be like if their policies were implemented? With some studies by actual thinkers and data to back them up?

    No, that would be too much like science and not enough like religion.

  2. Submitted by Deb Reed on 08/11/2011 - 10:58 am.

    Say all you want republican candidates, we the American public know who you are. We do not want your politics!!! Obama may be having troubles…. but your party are the reason that nothing is getting done, your policies the sad joke of this country!!! I am ashamed you are here!! Not one candidate is in my opinion better than Obama!!! (but NOT just mine!) You can take all the fake polls you want… I know no one that has been called, and that is saying a lot!!!!

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/11/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    1. Remember Reagan’s 11th Commandment.
    2. Whoever has the most effective attack on Obama wins the debate.
    3. Look for a consensus on restructuring the tax code to make it flatter to increase revenues and reducing the corporate income tax to zilch to attract foreign investment and jobs.
    3. Democrats should watch something else. The economics discussion will be over your head and you won’t be voting for any of these people anyway so why bother?
    4. These people will be trying to convince the audience that they are the most principled conservative running, unlike the democrat debates where the candidates would never even admit to being a liberal.

  4. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 08/11/2011 - 01:10 pm.

    A reputable source claims that charismatic Ms. Michele will be on a 7-second delay…in case any unflattering camera shots happen to capture that goofy, galvanizing gaze. No sexism allowed!

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/11/2011 - 02:45 pm.

    Tough call. Pre-season football starts tonight.
    Any official drinking words or phrases for tonight?

  6. Submitted by Lora Jones on 08/11/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    #4 Dennis — good one at 3. Repubs haven’t paid any attention to economics since Reagan went VooDoo. No doubt this crop will spout the same DooDoo that passes for “economics” at Grover Norquist’s pool parties.

  7. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/11/2011 - 04:09 pm.

    Reagan’s 11th amendment is the reason we are where we are. Did you notice how voiceless the republicans were when Bush was spending our country off a financial cliff? That is what voiceless gets you when you are afraid to tell someone in your party they are doing wrong. The republican talking points haven’t changed so why would the results change? The current republican candidates are all followers. If they were leaders they would have led the debt ceiling talks away from gridlock to a sensible solution. Instead they were uncharacteristically silent. The republicans need to find a leader first, and then talk, but for now it is time once again for the republicans to remain voiceless. Good news for all of us, Reagan’s philosophies died years ago because it has been proven over time they were failed policies.

  8. Submitted by David Willard on 08/11/2011 - 06:25 pm.

    Doug Grow advising Republicans is like President “the One” Obama teaching us about capitalism.

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