It wasn’t supposed to be like this. For a time, Tim Pawlenty’s campaign thought that by simply holding most of the donor money hostage, he would clear the field upon announcing he was running for a third term. The antiquated thinking inside the campaign, and in the general Minnesota Republican establishment, was that the reasons for his candidacy were self-evident. Certainly they were to them: he would have the money and they would have the influence, petty jobs in and out of the campaign and, hopefully, government. The only task remaining was to force the ersatz “juggernaut” onto those rubes, the Republican primary voters. Enough television ads and direct mailers would do the trick.
Except they didn’t and haven’t. Instead, endorsed Republican candidate Jeff Johnson was able to extract not one but two debates from an allergic-to-the-great-unwashed Pawlenty. He deserves credit for making the primary what Pawlenty insists it is: an informed, democratic choice between two candidates.
The MPR Debate
I watched the debate on Facebook where MPR had a live stream. It was immediately apparent why the Pawlenty campaign resisted debating: he was a disaster from the moment it began. He got better, somewhat, as the debate proceeded but it was hard for any interested voter to overcome Pawlenty’s thin skinned name calling of Johnson a “poser.” Is there any self-awareness in his operation?
Johnson crisply shut him down, saying he wasn’t going to return the favor of name calling, thereby instantly becoming the adult, the non-hack, in the race. The first question dealt with Pawlenty’s attack ad and instead of mildly defending it and pivoting to his perceived strengths, Pawlenty doubled down, disastrously. Johnson called it the most dishonest ad he’d encountered in his political life. He went on to observe how Pawlenty goes out of his way not to engage with voters. We’ve noticed, Jeff.
Repeatedly throughout the debate, Pawlenty could be seen looking off camera at his handlers and programmers. Where would people get the idea that he doesn’t believe anything but will say anything? If you haven’t watched the YouTube of the debate, I encourage you to do so. If you focus on Pawlenty, as I did, it will be hard to shake a creepy feeling.
There was a fair amount of agreement on most of the issues asked about: gun control (except for bump stocks which Pawlenty wants to ban), welfare, immigration reform & refugee resettlement and opioids. It got interesting again when the moderator asked about President Trump. Pawlenty waffled and tried to have it both ways, his political signature despite the title of his laughable presidential book “Courage To Stand.” He stands where his donors & polling tell him. Johnson got the better because he clearly and straightforwardly supports Trump in a way that Pawlenty simply doesn’t. People sense this, know it.
Despite pretending he supported Trump, the jig was up when Johnson asked Pawlenty the deadliest question of the entire debate: “On election night, when you were watching the coverage, who did you want to win?” Pawlenty eventually replied “I voted for him.” To which Johnson said “Then you should have told people that after you told them not to vote for him.” Game, set, match.
The “At Issue” Debate
This was a mixed bag at most given that we’re dealing with local Twin Cities television. I forget how lousy most of our local media is because I rarely watch local news. Who are these deluded people that think themselves informed because they do?
The first question was laziness personified: why are you running for governor. Pawlenty hit the autoscript and, Marco Rubio-like, delivered a memorized set of banalities. It may as well have been said in 2012 when he was fitfully running for president. Mark Steyn said of Trump that he had stripped away “the sheer artificiality” of modern politics. We’re reminded of that artificiality every time Pawlenty opens his mouth.
Johnson was prepared but also ready to make a contrast: he correctly said voters wanted change and not mere tweaking around the edges. He went on to note they were looking for something different than the laundry list provided by Pawlenty, i.e., substance and not platitudes.
Pawlenty’s misbegotten attack ad was replayed and this became a round that he couldn’t win. The hive mind of his campaign still thinks it’s effective despite the backlash to it. This tells me that in the general they’ll stick to losing issues, angles, lines of attack and then blame the voters for their loss. Never them, always you.
Johnson fairly thrashed Pawlenty over the ad, having done so two days prior in the MPR debate. I suppose if our pathetic donor class had been fleeced of $300,000 to run it, there was little incentive now to disavow it, however mildly. This only shows, however, what a profoundly bad idea it was in the first place. Some A Team.
Johnson again characterized the ad as dishonest and Pawlenty again defended it with an in- the-weeds, gotcha analysis of procedure. Johnson labeled that more “Washington games.”
Even Tom Hauser felt compelled to confront Pawlenty, saying “Most people who’ve known Jeff Johnson over the years would not consider him to be a big tax and spender.” It’s mystifying to me: the fundamental premise of Pawlenty’s attack on Johnson is that he’s a tax and spend kind of guy. That dog won’t hunt but I suppose, if you don’t get out much like the Vision Caster and his yes men/women minions, who are demonstrably less talented than they think, you talk yourself into believing it will.
Hauser, no doubt thinking himself a serious journalist instead of a talking head, threw out, rapid fire, several issues on which the candidates differed little: taxes, transit (on which Pawlenty made ridiculous arguments about Johnson voting for an omnibus bill in the legislature while ignoring that latter’s claim that he could have vetoed such funding as governor), school funding and school safety, mining, elder care, the opioid crisis, as well as gun control. On the last issue, Pawlenty said, for the second time in three days, that he’d ban bump stocks, essentially because he’s been told it polls well. “Courage To Pander.”
By contrast, Johnson said no change was needed in Minnesota gun laws and bravely pointed out the myriad social pathologies that underlie gun violence, doing so with conviction. We’re not used to seeing genuine courage from our Minnesota republican candidates but Johnson delivered it in spades on a contentious issue.
Both candidates said they’d welcome an endorsement from, and campaigning by, President Trump. Only one of them meant it, and not the one who refused to attend the June Trump rally in Duluth.
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Lest my hate readers think I’d give good grades to Johnson no matter how he performed, let me say that on many issues Pawlenty was strong and cogent. I’m actually looking for strengths in Pawlenty because I’ve said repeatedly I’m supporting the winner of the primary. I wrote months ago, though, that he needed to improve as a candidate and on balance, I’ve seen little. In fact, in trying to fend off Johnson’s grassroots insurgency, he’s been quite awful.
The biggest myth about Pawlenty’s candidacy is that he’ll be a strong general election candidate despite all evidence thus far. Still, it was enough to cajole two million dollars out of people who think name ID + money = electoral success. They must have slept through 2016.
I’m always struck by the last ditch, painfully desperate argument of Pawlenty supporters: if Johnson wins, where will he get the money to compete effectively? It never dawns on them that they are indicting their own candidate and proving my criticism of him correct: that he’s a creature of our schlerotic, entrenched, establishment swamp, looking out only for himself and them.
Why wouldn’t all the money Pawlenty has raised be repurposed, within the law, to help Johnson? Why wouldn’t all those supporting him, including donors, see that Minnesota is in the balance this November? No, it’s very clear that if their guy loses nine days from now, it’s over, they take their failed ball and go away.
This, I submit, tells you all you need to know about the dumbest republicans in the nation.™
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In addition to Alpha News, John Gilmore is also a contributor to The Hill. He is the founder and executive director of Minnesota Media Monitor.™ He blogs at MinnesotaConservatives.org and is on Twitter under @Shabbosgoy. He can be reached at John@alphanewsmn.com
Photo credit: WCCO, CBS Minnesota