Tim Pawlenty’s Lost Chance

Looking back on the events of 2011, who do you think has more regrets for his bad decisions, Hosni Mubarak or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty?

I guess you have to give it to Mubarak. After all, the guy gave up a cushy gig ruling Egypt just so he could be (justifiably) prosecuted from a sickbed while his cronies retained power.

All Pawlenty did was blow his entirely plausible shot at the presidency.

But one thing is clear: Both men misread their moments.

Let’s hop into the way-back machine. Pawlenty’s plan was to be the alternative to Mitt Romney. He launched a huge political operation, perhaps to scare off other candidates, which required an equally huge fundraising effort to sustain it.

In order to justify the money he was asking of donors, he had to do well in the Iowa straw poll in August. He came in third to Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. Pawlenty quit the race the next day.

Tactically, Pawlenty’s mistakes are too numerous to count. But strategically, Pawlenty had the right idea: be the most electable candidate to the right of Romney.

Because right now, electable is turning out to be a pretty high bar.

Bachmann’s done, even if she doesn’t realize it yet. Her campaign never recovered from the entry of Rick Perry, which, oddly, is something you can say about the Perry campaign as well.

Perry was ill-prepared substantively, psychologically and politically for front-runner status, and it showed. He seemed to think that all he needed to say was, “No need to worry anymore. I’m Rick Perry, and I’m from Texas.”

Perry’s frustration has to be particularly acute because he’ll never win back that first impression. When he entered the race, he drew massively from the 75 percent to 80 percent of the Republican Party that doesn’t want to vote for Romney. He could still win some of them back, but he will never erase the doubts.

One little-noticed irony: Newt Gingrich had a whole lot of Perry people working for him when he rolled out what may have been the most disastrous presidential debut in modern memory. They all quit and went back to Perry, who proceeded to have the second-most-disastrous presidential rollout in modern memory. Now Gingrich is clawing his way back to respectability, thanks to the debates.

Speaking of which, everyone is talking about how the debates matter more this year — which is true — because of the changing media landscape, which is mostly nonsense. The debates matter because a lot of voters are desperate for a new president, and the debates are where most of us go to shop for one.

Now back to Pawlenty. His problem stemmed from the fact that he’s a vanilla guy who thought he needed to convince conservatives he was a more exciting flavor. He should have waited, because vanilla may not be anyone’s first choice, but it’s almost everyone’s second choice.

In this respect, Herman Cain is the last exciting flavor in the race. As Cain likes to say, he’s not a “flavor of the month” because “Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time.”

Alas, as ABC News has reported, Haagen-Dazs discontinued that ice cream because it basically was a flavor of the month.

Given what we know so far, the allegations that, as head of the National Restaurant Association, Cain sexually harassed two female colleagues won’t cause too many to leap from the Cain train. But, combined with his shaky efforts at damage control, the spectacle might keep others from hopping on board. He certainly hasn’t enhanced the perception that he’s entirely ready for primetime. It still seems like his campaign started as a brilliant book tour that somehow wandered into the GOP primaries.

And that leaves Romney. Not since Bob Dole told Republicans in 1995, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want me to be,” has there been a GOP front-runner who seemed more out of sync with his party’s passions.

Many conservatives are reconciled to a Romney victory the way they are to the inevitability of catching the seasonal flu.

This should be Pawlenty’s moment. He could run as the vanilla alternative to the fat-free, sugar-free vanilla frogurt Romney.

That’s not entirely fair to Romney, but what’s fair got to do with it?

Just ask Tim Pawlenty.

(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

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