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Tim Pawlenty Climbs Aboard the Crazy Train

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has a problem. He wants to be the Republican nominee for president in 2012. But there's nothing much about him that excites the conservative "base" voters who almost completely control the nominating process. That's why he was passed over (reportedly at the last minute) by John McCain for the vice presidential nod last year, in favor of the risky proposition of Sarah Palin, whom the Right to Life movement considers its very own St. Joan.

Yes, Pawlenty is himself an anti-abortion absolutist, but that's a given in GOP circles these days. Yes, he's a practicing conservative evangelical Christian, but in a 2012 field that will probably include Mike Huckabee, you'd have to personally handle snakes to make a particular impression on that constituency. His record in Minnesota provides little or no red meat. His coinage of the term "Sam's Club Republicans" is nice, but is getting a little old and meaningless.

But unlike Palin, Pawlenty is, at least until the end of next year, a governor. So he seems to have decided to identify himself with the one crazy right-wing cause that has something vaguely to do with his current gig: the so-called "state sovereignty movement." As Andy Barr of Politico reports:

Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty urged fellow governors on Thursday to more frequently assert state sovereignty over the federal government and suggested that the country may increasingly see states suing the federal government.

Asked by a caller about the option of asserting the Tenth Amendment as a tactic to reject a successful health care overhaul by President Barack Obama during a tele-town hall organized by the Republican Governors Association, Pawlenty said, “that’s a possibility.”

Speaking generally about the tenth amendment, Pawlenty said the country has not had “a proper federalism debate since Ronald Reagan raised the issue in the 1980s.”

“You’re starting to see more governors, me and governor [Rick] Perry from Texas, speaking out on this and asserting our tenth amendment rights,” Pawlenty said on a call listened to by more than 12,000 people.

The "state sovereignty movement" is not, it's important to understand, just a group of people who think the federal government has too much power. It's central feature is the crackpot nineteenth century theory, revived most recently to resist civil rights legislation, that states have the inherent right to nullify federal legislation and court rulings that fall outside the enumerated constitutional powers of the federal government. And Pawlenty knows its extremist provenance: that's why he identified himself with Rick Perry, who's flirted both with nullification and with secession as part of his high-minded contributions to the "state sovereignty movement."

Perry, being a Texan and all, knows how to play the game, issuing dog whistles to the people who essentially want to nullify not just every form of federal social or civil rights legislation, but the last presidential election, while making it sound like he's just offering some observations on constitutional law. I don't know if Pawlenty, a yankee who didn't grow up with this particular tradition of double-talk, can pull it off.

But for the time being, this is the car on the crazy train of the contemporary Right that he's chosen to climb aboard, and it could turn out to be a pretty wild ride. Hope he enjoys the company of his new friends in the "state sovereignty movement," and can learn to properly whistle "Dixie."