Tim Pawlenty is considered by many observers to be among the more serious candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
On June 7, Pawlenty gave a major address, titled “A Better Deal,” in which he laid out his plan for America’s economy. The once moderately conservative governor of liberal Minnesota offered a collection of hard-right touchstones. He proposed cutting taxes, with especially steep cuts for the wealthy, through a combination of income tax reductions and the elimination of all taxes on capital gains, interest income, dividends and estates. He proposed a “Google test”if you can find a private business on the Internet that offers a good or service, then the federal government “probably doesn’t need to be doing it.” He elaborated by noting that “[t]he post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, Fannie and Freddie were all built for a different time in our country when the private sector did not adequately provide those services. That’s no longer the case.” Like every Republican running for president this year, he promises to repeal health care reform and wants to get rid of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
The steep tax cuts will cost the United States Treasury an estimated $8 trillion over the next decade. Despite this, and notwithstanding that Pawlenty has said he will not cut Pentagon spending, he insists that “A Better Deal” will dramatically reduce federal budget deficits. How? In addition to promised federal spending cuts far more draconian than those already passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, Pawlenty argues that his policies would spur 5 percent annual growth over the next decade, noting that presidents Reagan and Clinton oversaw robust periods of expansion.
But Pawlenty’s growth projections appear to be little more than magical thinking. The economy had one year of better-than-5 percent growth under Reagan, and none under Clinton. In fact, the U.S. economy hasn’t had more than two consecutive years of 5 percent growth since the 1960s. The eminent economist Alan Blinder says that, given prevailing economic realities, we would need to have negative unemployment (!) to sustain Pawlenty’s planned growth rates for a decade. If you didn’t think negative unemployment was possible, you’re not alone. And it’s not only liberals such as Paul Krugman who have hammered the former governor’s figures. The Wall Street Journal wrote that “such long booms are rare in developed economies and we can’t recall one that lasted 10 years.” Plenty of other conservatives, including George Will, have been similarly dismissive.
Observers also have ridiculed other aspects of Pawlenty’s plans, notably the Google test. After all, by that standard, since one can find many private military services, one might question why we need a Pentagon at all. Ditto for police, prisons and disaster relief.
So, what is going on here? Do Pawlenty and his senior advisers really not know better? That seems highly unlikely. In 2006, then-Gov. Pawlenty said, “The era of small government is over … I’m a market person, but there are certain circumstances where you’ve got to have government put up the guardrails or bust up entrenched interests before they become too powerful. Government has to be more proactive, more aggressive.” In 2007, Pawlenty expressed support for cap-and-trade policies to restrain emissions of greenhouse gases. He has now completely disavowed that position and says simply that he made a mistake. He supported the bank bailouts in 2008 but now says he opposes them.
Every politician wants, of course, to appeal to the base during election season, and every campaign speech includes hot-button applause lines meant to fire up interest groups and invoke powerful symbols with which the candidate and his or her party want to identify. But what’s notable about Pawlenty’s ideas and broader outlook is that there is almost nothing elsereally no serious policy content at all. Instead, he represents the reductio ad absurdum of contemporary Republican politics: that virtually all appeals are directed to the most emotive, visceral concerns of the base.
In Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, a book I co-wrote in 2009 with Marc Hetherington, we presented substantial evidence that the American political system has been increasingly sorting itself out along a basic personality dimension: the authoritarian personality. We defined “authoritarian” as, among other things, the tendency to reduce political questions to the most basic good-vs.-evil terms and to use fear of the “other” to motivate voters. We argued that less authoritarian-minded individuals have been gravitating toward the Democratic Party and more authoritarian-minded ones toward the Republican Party, and that this sorting process has had profound consequences for the nature of political conflict in the United States.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that all Democrats are nonauthoritarian, or that all Republicans are authoritarian. Neither political party has a monopoly on partisanship, nor is either above making disingenuous appeals to its most ardent supporters. And certainly, public preferences do not determine all policy outcomes in a political system heavily influenced by elite interests.
But what is increasingly and undeniably true is that one party, the GOP, has attracted, at its base, a large subset of individuals with a tendency to see the world in black-and-white terms, convinced that hand-wringing and hesitating in the face of clear, categorical threats to well-being is a recipe for disaster. The majority of Americans are neither purely authoritarian nor nonauthoritarian, but a mixture of inclinations influenced to some extent by circumstances. But Republican elites have made a series of emotional appeals over several decades that have resulted in the cultivation of an authoritarian base to whom party elites are now substantially beholden.
And that authoritarian influence is having a dramatic impact on the tone and substance of Republican politics. Understanding the GOP’s ostensible policy proposals through this lens brings into focus something that is missing from a straightforward analysis of the merits of those proposals. Pawlenty’s notion that all problems will be solved if we simply cut taxes, gut government and let business flourish appeals to a need among the party’s base for a simple, clear, well-worn understanding of how the world works. In this view, liberal elites have spent decades muddying the waters with complex regulatory schemes, unfairly redistributive social programs and contempt for hard-working Americans who aren’t part of some favored “minority” group. In the guise of a substantive plan, Pawlenty’s speech sends that clear and powerful message, while attacking many of the targets the Republican base has most come to despise.
In 2002, John Dilulio, an official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote a letter to journalist Ronald Suskind in which he lamented the utter lack of interest in policy in the Bush White House. Dilulio said, in part, “staff, senior and junior … consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.”
It will take more than groveling before his base for Pawlenty to win the nomination. He lacks charisma, he’s obviously unprincipled and he has performed poorly in the debates so far. Pawlenty is, of course, far from alone among his GOP counterparts in substituting magical thinking for serious responses to national problems. But what’s especially noteworthy about the deeply implausible nature of his plans is that he is widely considered, alongside Mitt Romney, to be the least extreme, most “serious” and most technocratic candidate in the Republican field. In that regard, it’s best to view “A Better Deal” not as a remotely viable blueprint for governance, but as a symbol of the devolution of one of our two major political parties.