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Tooting the Horn of Pawlenty

Meet the first Sam's Club Republican.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The most important speech at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, held in early March at a Washington hotel, didn't come from any of the Republicans running for president. It came from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the few Republican success stories in 2006--he was reelected with 47 percent of the vote--and a rising star in a party that's been knocked back on its heels.

Pawlenty spoke in the middle of the afternoon on the last day of the three-day event, hours before former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would address a standing-room-only crowd. The audience that listened to Pawlenty's panel was modest in size, listless, and easily distracted. The subject was how the GOP can win back the votes of suburban and exurban voters. When Pawlenty said, "I support school choice," the crowd applauded wanly. Then it was silent. Conservative boilerplate wasn't going to rouse it from its stupor.

And Pawlenty said, "But that ain't enough."

A few kids in blue blazers raised an eyebrow.

And Pawlenty said, "I want to push you a little bit. Indulge me."

Two older conservatives exchanged looks.

And before you knew it Pawlenty took off, arguing for reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada and Mexico, for increased government subsidies for alternative energy, for more health insurance coverage, and for using government to cater to the needs of down-scale voters. At times the crowd was confused; at other times it seemed annoyed. Here was this tall, bird-like young man--Pawlenty is 46--taking on standard conservative public policy prescriptions and saying they were lacking. He was saying they weren't enough to return the GOP to majority status. Besides, the issues on which Pawlenty focused--education, health care, energy--sounded a little . . . Democratic, especially at a wingnut gathering such as this.

A funny thing happened, however. Once he had his audience, Pawlenty never lost them. In fact, he won some of them over. Towards the end of the talk, when Pawlenty said the United States was "funding both sides of the war on terror. We're funding our side, and we're funding their side by buying oil," he got a standing ovation. After the speech Pawlenty mingled in a hallway outside the hotel ballroom. The reaction was positive. People kept coming up to him, shaking his hand.

"These trainers always come in and say, 'Hey, if you want to win over a crowd, just tell them what they want to hear. Don't try to convince them or persuade them. What they really want is to be affirmed. And you'll be--in their minds--you'll be more well liked if you just tell them what they want to hear,'" Pawlenty said later. "I don't enjoy that because you become kind of a . . . mercenary. So I tried to--and I enjoy trying to--at least appropriately and gently and constructively try to get people to think a little bit. And so I don't want to go, you know, in your face, but at least be . . . constructively provocative, and maybe get some of them to have a light go on and say, 'Well, maybe that's worth thinking about.'

"Otherwise you just come in and do the Milton Friedman playbook and the other social and economic side of it--I can do that, I believe in that stuff strongly--but they've been hearing that for four days and, you know, I also look to put a little something new on it."

A little something new. . . . It was back in 2002 that Pawlenty first said the GOP needed "to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." Back then his embrace of his state and regional populist tradition was a curiosity, a political epiphenomenon lost in a national sea of regnant Bush Republicanism. Today Bush Republicanism is on its way out. The most successful GOP governors--Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Rick Perry in Texas, Charlie Crist in Florida, and former governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts--like their conservatism à la carte. They emphasize certain conservative policies--low taxes most of all--but dismiss others. Meanwhile, in Washington policy circles, wonks and flacks are busy sketching out an alternative Republican agenda that combines social conservatism with an active government tailoring economic policies to help working families. Pawlenty's slogan--"The party of Sam's Club"--is the working title on a forthcoming book from Doubleday by WEEKLY STANDARD contributors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam.

Behind all this new thinking lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.