Say you're a Midwestern Republican governor and likely presidential candidate looking to distinguish yourself from another Midwestern Republican governor and likely presidential candidate, Mitch Daniels of Indiana. How do you do it? Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty seems to think he's figured it out.
First, Pawlenty criticized Mitch Daniels' call for a "truce" on social issues. Then, as Pawlenty made clear at a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C. this morning, he is more focused on foreign policy and has a less ambitious agenda for entitlement reform than Daniels.
Pawlenty started off this morning's breakfast meeting, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, by talking about his recent trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. Pawlenty said we cannot set an "arbitrary deadline" for withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we do, he said, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, the Afghan people, and Pakistan's leaders would start "hedging their bets" to prepare for a country where the Taliban is much stronger.
Pawlenty argued that the threat posed by al Qaeda in the region is still serious. "The region between Pakistan and Afghanistan--there's a lot of synergy and a lot of nexus between those two," Pawlenty said. "So simply by declaring that al Qaeda may be now limited in Afghanistan doesn't really tell the rest of the story about the continuing threat" from al Qaeda in the region. Pawlenty noted that this was his fifth trip to Iraq and his third trip to Afghanistan.
Pawlenty is boning up on domestic policy as well. On the plane ride to the Middle East and back, he read the book The End of Wall Street. "We'll never know" the consequences had TARP not been passed, he said, though he thinks "some creative destruction" of misbehaving Wall Street banks might have been good in the long run.
Pawlenty was silent on Congressman Paul Ryan's fiscal "Road Map," but did lay out three ideas for entitlement reform. "One, decide what we can afford for Medicaid, cap it, and block grant it to the states," he said. "Two, we have to reform and re-style Medicare for a 2010 forward leaning health care delivery system that ... pays on health care outcomes." Third, on Social Security, Pawlenty expressed support for means testing the Cost of Living Adjustments and making individualized accounts an option for those who aren't already receiving benefits.
Asked if he supports Paul Ryan's idea of transitioning those under 55 to a free-market, voucherized, and means-tested Medicare program, Pawlenty said, "I think the concept of giving new entrants into that program or other entitlement programs an individualized approach, or opportunity to customize their participation, I would be for that."
But, Pawlenty repeated, he was merely supporting the "concept" of such a reform and hasn't endorsed any particular plan at this point. In other words, Pawlenty is more cautious than Republicans like Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan on the issue of entitlement reform.
But in the end, Pawlenty said, there won't be much difference between GOP presidential candidates on the issues. He said it's important to have a presidential candidate who doesn't live up to the stereotype that Republicans are "all CEOs" who "play polo on the weekends." Pawlenty made the case that his background as the son of a truck driver who worked his way through college helps him reach out to working class voters, who are turned off by "country club elitists."
"In the end, there’s going to be five, ten, twelve candidates standing on the stage who, at least for now, all look kind of the same... And they’re going to say about the same thing" on the issues, he said. "But the real question’s going to be, as to tone and face and credibility, who is best situated to open the door to people that are not yet Republicans? To say, we understand what you’re going through and we can make a connection with you in ways that have some credibility?"