Sabato's Crystal Ball

It’s Not Just History Holding Back Republican Race’s Minnesotans

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics August 12th, 2011

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail

(AMES, Iowa) – In his fascinating new book of alternate histories, Then Everything Changed, noted political journalist Jeff Greenfield envisions a scenario – not to give too much away – in which Hubert Humphrey, the liberal Minnesotan, is thrust into the president’s chair to handle an international crisis. But, unfortunately for HHH, only an act of fiction could make him president: He lost his Democratic Party’s primary in 1960 and 1972 and a relatively close general election matchup against Richard Nixon in 1968.

Indeed, while many Gophers have tried to become president – Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Humphrey’s 1968 rival; perennial candidate Harold Stassen, who served as governor; and 1984 landslide loser Walter Mondale, a former vice president – none has succeeded.

Can the North Star State’s jinx be ended in 2012? The key takeaway from Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate is that it’s going to be very difficult.

The main story coming out of the third GOP debate is the pointed showdown between Minnesota’s two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. Bachmann charges that Pawlenty is a phony conservative; Pawlenty argues that Bachmann, for all her conservative talk, has no results to show for it.

Pawlenty, for the second debate in a row, failed to impress. In the Pawlenty-Bachmann clash, Bachmann came across clear and confident, while Pawlenty oftentimes mangled his lines. So much of analyzing a debate can feel like reviewing a play or a movie, but debates are, to a great extent, studies in political theatre. Ask Richard Nixon in 1960 about the importance of style over substance in televised American presidential debates; little has changed since then.

Pawlenty also was given a chance to attack Mitt Romney over Massachusetts’ health care plan, which Romney signed into law as governor and which contains an individual mandate to buy insurance, just like President Obama’s health care plan. Pawlenty whiffed on the question in the June debate, and he didn’t do that much better this time; Romney swatted Pawlenty away with an easy joke: “I think I liked Tim’s answer in the last debate better.”

But even if his star is continuing to fade, Pawlenty pressed a line of attack against Bachmann that probably will undermine her candidacy: She has only principles, as opposed to product, to point to. She herself noted that the federal debt has doubled in her short time in office as a congresswoman. Is she blameless? If so, she clearly has not made much of a splash in actual policymaking in Washington, justifying Pawlenty’s argument; if not, then there goes her principle, which is the bedrock of her campaign.

Meanwhile, Ryan Lizza’s story about Bachmann in The New Yorker this week – a dispassionate look at her background that avoids the pettiness often directed at the conservative Minnesotan – shows that Democrats would have a very easy time painting her as far outside the American mainstream. Bachmann has benefitted from inartful questioning – such as a question at Thursday night’s debate as to whether she was “submissive” to her husband – that has discredited the questioner, not her. Lizza’s piece isn’t so easily deflected.

Pawlenty and Bachmann are the prime contenders in Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll. But whoever does better there – and it appears that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum will have something to say about the result as well – might ultimately end up being eclipsed by Rick Perry, the Texas governor who reportedly will launch his campaign Saturday, the same day as the Straw Poll.

Perry’s entry could relegate the Bachmann/Pawlenty battle to the equivalent of a first-round game at the NCAA basketball tournament. Sure, the winning team moves on, but stronger foes await.

Meanwhile, nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney glided through another debate with nary a scratch. More damaging, potentially, was a self-inflicted wound suffered at an event at the Iowa State Fair earlier Thursday. In response to heckling from liberal protestors about taxing corporations, Romney declared in what was a rare flash of barely-concealed anger that “corporations are people.” His larger explanation, that taxes on corporations ultimately affect the people who own or work for them, is not nonsensical. But the soundbite is what matters, and in what may be a bitter, scorched earth base turnout election between, hypothetically, President Obama and Romney, the quote would at the very least make for an effective attack ad to jar some Democrats out of complacency.

Speaking of alternate history books such as Jeff Greenfield’s, presidential aspirant and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich has written many himself, including a co-written volume about World War II, 1945, that your humble correspondent read – and thoroughly enjoyed – while in the seventh grade or so. Gingrich talked a lot about real history during the debate. In addition to being the resident media critic on stage at debates – he repeatedly and unpersuasively scolded the generally sharp Fox News and Washington Examiner questioners – he also served as the resident historian, bringing up Ronald Reagan and discussing his long-ago role as House Speaker. It’s no surprise that Gingrich started out as a history professor.

The fall semester at most universities is about to begin, but come winter semester Gingrich might be able to find the time to jump back into his former profession.