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.”
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.
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.