Uff da. We Minnesotans knew there would be trouble when both Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann aimed for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Although both are Republicans, here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, their political animosity has never been much of a secret. Now that rivalry leads the national political desks, mainly a product of Bachmann's sudden success in Iowa.
Of course, this happens when people campaign for the same office or nomination, regardless of party affiliation — and it should. Americans have a historical blindness when it comes to political campaigning, yearning for bygone days when candidates only talked about themselves and their political positions, and conducted themselves in gentlemanly (or gentlewomanly, as the case may be) fashion toward their opponents. The problem with that nostalgia is that it hearkens back to days that only exist in our collective imagination.
The primary should be a competition to find the best nominee, not a pillow fight at the slumber party.
In the second seriously contested presidential election — in 1800 – John Adams' allies painted Thomas Jefferson as "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw" and "a Virginia mulatto father." Jefferson's allies publicly described Adams as having "a hideous hermaphroditical character." Jefferson eventually settled on using a media outlet to leak the most outrageous slanders through its editor and publisher, James Callendar, who eventually did prison time for libel. Jefferson won the election, but ended up hoist by his own petard when Callendar felt slighted. Callendar retaliated by publishing Jefferson's own dirty laundry, especially the truth about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, a rumor discussed only sotto voce in Washington, D.C. circles until Callendar printed it in 1802.
Compared to the Jefferson-Adams campaign, not to mention many, many more mudslinging presidential campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Pawlenty-Bachmann feud is a mild family spat. At times it seems personal as well as professional, but unlike the hyperbole of the 1800 campaign, even the personal is more or less business related. It also provides an interesting moment for Republicans who have tended to circle the wagons around the woman who leads the Tea Party movement, as both Pawlenty and Bachmann go on offense against each other. And oddly, it seems that the main point of the contretemps is to determine which of the two is the Republican Barack Obama, hardly a demonstration of Minnesota Nice.
Murmurs of discontent and disapproval arose when Pawlenty first began focusing on Bachmann's lack of experience, as her poll numbers skyrocketed in Iowa, and then nationally. Two weeks ago on NBC's Meet the Press, Pawlenty hammered Bachmann's track record in Congress, which Pawlenty twice called "non-existent." The two-term governor of Minnesota contrasted Bachmann's lack of legislative achievement with his record of governance with a hostile legislature, and touted that as more relevant experience for the job they both seek. Pawlenty made sure that no one missed the comparison between Bachmann and another untested executive-office aspirant in 2008.
Faster than one could say lutefisk, Pawlenty was criticized for criticizing Bachmann. Ironically, this was not long after Pawlenty was criticized for not criticizing Mitt Romney. Reagan's 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans") was endlessly recited as doctrine. But comparing past experience is perfectly legitimate in a primary campaign, and Pawlenty's best argument comes from his near-decade-long tenure as a chief executive.
However, Pawlenty's argument about Bachmann's lack of accomplishment ignores some important context. As a member of the House minority in her first two terms, Bachmann had as much chance of getting a bill to a vote as her Democratic neighbor Rep. Keith Ellison has in this session. Bachmann has focused on developing grassroots support for the Republican Party, rising as a leader of the Tea Party movement. Given the enormous victory in the midterms that Tea Party enthusiasm helped deliver for the GOP, arguing that Bachmann's accomplishments are "non-existent" is hardly fair.
Over the next two weeks, Bachmann came out swinging — sometimes wildly. Initially, Bachmann offered up the rebuttal that "experience" has brought America more big government, and so is overrated — an argument that itself has echoes from Obama's 2008 campaign. Just this weekend, Bachmann slammed Pawlenty policies in a press release, arguing that Pawlenty has more in common with Obama than herself:
"But in fact, there is very little difference between Gov. Pawlenty's past positions and Barack Obama's positions on several critical issues facing Americans. On issues such as unconstitutional health care mandates, climate change regulations, and Wall Street bailouts, there's very little daylight, indeed, between Gov. Pawlenty's record and the Obama administration's policies.
"And of course, President Obama would surely applaud Gov. Pawlenty's 2006 statement that the 'era of small government is over,' and that the government will have to be 'more proactive and more aggressive.'"
Pawlenty is certainly vulnerable on climate change, a position he acknowledges was a "clunker," and which he repudiates repeatedly on the campaign trail. Pawlenty also entertained the notion of state-level individual mandates for health insurance, eventually discarding them for other approaches. However, the "era of small government" accusation is plainly false, a statement which the Minneapolis Star Tribune misattributed to Pawlenty when he was quoting a David Brooks column to refute the notion.
Was there really "very little difference" between Pawlenty's tenure as governor and Obama's as president? It depends on the scale. If a Minnesotan uses the spectrum of American politics over the last 40 years, then Pawlenty governed more in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, both in California and in Washington; he fought against tax increases, forced the legislature to curtail spending increases, and stared down public-employee unions in a 44-day transit strike. Only by using a spectrum that includes Joseph Stalin on one end and Atilla the Hun on the other could anyone in Minnesota say, "Yah, you betcha" to the notion that Pawlenty governed like Obama, in both direction and accomplishment.
So neither Minnesotan will remind any rational voter of Barack Obama, except perhaps each other. Will it matter in the end? If Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets into the race, probably not. Perry is at least as accomplished on the stump as Bachmann and has a longer and more successful track record as an executive than Pawlenty, especially on job creation. Where the two Minnesotans represent the current sparring match between the conservative grassroots and the establishment, Perry represents a potential unifying candidate whom both sides can enthusiastically back.
The Pawlenty-Bachmann feud has done the Republicans one favor, though. It prepared them for a tougher and more substantive campaign than would having everyone sing from the same hymnal, which will make the next debate somewhat more enlightening for voters. The primary should be a competition to find the best nominee, not a pillow fight at a slumber party. If we had to put Minnesota Nice on ice for a while, then holy buckets, it was worth it.