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The GOP's Vanilla Option

This item was cross-posted at The New Republic.

Tim Pawlenty made a much-anticipated speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in an apparent first step towards a 2012 presidential bid. It wasn't exactly greeted as a trumpet blast; a nice familiar tune from a kazoo might be a more apt metaphor. But after what's happened in the last few weeks to putative 2012 GOP candidates John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and Sarah Palin, maybe he's a "fresh face" in the sense of one that does not sport large blemishes.

The full text of his speech isn't readily available yet. But from descriptions, it sounds like he performed the same dance that has been perfected by other Republican leaders such as party chairman Michael Steele: Republicans need to stand up to Obama, get back to their conservative principles, stop apologizing for their past, and oh, by the way, attract whole new categories of voters. It doesn't say a lot for GOP outreach efforts that they think just throwing open the door and not being aggressively hostile to converts will do the trick, absent some change in message or policy. But the "not conservative enough" diagnosis of George W. Bush continues to exert an iron grip on GOP options for the future.

It does appear that Pawlenty talked a lot about "market-based health reform," but it's not clear yet whether he meant the kind of relentless return to the pre-insurance 1950s that John McCain's 2008 campaign plan implicitly called for, in which Americans will be "empowered" to buy individual health care policies, or something a bit less antediluvian. But if Pawlenty came up with anything new, it clearly escaped his listeners.

One account of his speech said he received "mild applause" and a "polite standing ovation." So it doesn't appear he's become Demosthenes overnight. This is a consistent problem for the Minnesotan. An upcoming book on the 2008 campaign (I’ve gotten a sneak peek) by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson confirms that Pawlenty, not Romney or Lieberman or Ridge, was actually the co-finalist for the 2008 Veep nomination alongside Sarah Palin. McCain’s wizards settled on Palin after concluding that Pawlenty, while “safe,” didn’t add much to the ticket’s electoral appeal.

And that’s Pawlenty’s problem today. If it turns out that 2012 is one of those years when any credible Republican who is acceptable to the party’s dominant conservative wing can win, then someone who’s a right-to-life evangelical with an attractively middle-class background who has non-disastrously governed a Blue State might make a lot of sense. But unfortunately for Pawlenty, such a promising landscape would undoubtedly tempt the Republican Right to get behind a True Believer who breathes fire and doesn’t hide it with vanilla mints. After four years of shrieking at Barack Obama as some sort of Leninist agent, will a party whose members apparently doubt the President was born in this country really want a candidate like Tim Pawlenty? Probably not, unless the other viable options continue to drop like flies.