Ramesh Ponnuru makes the case for Pawlenty
about as well as it's going to be made. Pawlenty's record of holding down spending in Minnesota is admirable and in some ways is exactly what we need. But the challenge isn't merely to cut spending per se. We will need to restructure Social Security and our health care market. Unless the 2012 Republican nominee faces some very, very favorable circumstances, he or she will face some very difficult political choices. On potential strategy will be to take on the challenge of explaining how center-right reforms of entitlements and health care are, in comparative terms, better than the policies that the Democrats will impose (even as the Democrats deny their designs and demagogue conservative proposals.) This strategy will face enormous difficulties and require great discipline. It will mean finding concise and attractive ways of explaining complicated issues and tough choices. It will mean plugging along until your message breaks through to more and more of the public. An alternative strategy will be to have some kind of reform agenda (at some level of specificity), but to try to focus the debate elsewhere. It might mean jumping on every Obama verbal stumble or running with every theme that finds traction in the right-blogosphere. This will seem attractive at first. The fights will seem simpler and public opinion will seem friendlier. That was the kind of campaign McCain ran, but it won't be a winner unless things seem to be getting worse rather than getting better far too slowly. While the Republican is focusing on secondary or tertiary issues, Obama will be hitting on how Social Security reform means cutting Social Security, that Medicare reform means dumping old people onto the insurance companies and that Republican health care reform means losing your employer-provided coverage. Democrats meanwhile will do everything to assure the public that they can keep everything they have with only a few "minor tweaks." At the end of the day, those kinds of attacks will prevail if they are not refuted and the public does not have a clear understanding of the comparative benefits of right-leaning reform. Does Pawlenty have what it takes to run this kind of campaign? I hope so, but his last two CPAC speeches reminded me more of the kind of cynical and shallow appeals that characterized the McCain campaign.