If you are old enough to have witnessed the not-so-distant arc of Bob Dole’s political career in real time, you will have some context for the apparent re-invention of Tim Pawlenty. You will also know the precise manner in which the Evangelical Christian right has debased the Republican primary to the current level at which it yields every four years a depressing spectacle of hypocrisy, hateful demagoguery, and anti-intellectualism.
Hypocrisy subsists in the perennial figure of the secular candidate who finds Jesus just in time for the election cycle. It is an unavoidable fact of political life that a presidential candidate can not arrive tabula rasa, or as we now say, without baggage. Most seekers of high office have been at the business of politics for decades (those who, like Sarah Palin, come to the nomination untested face other problems) — and as a result any sudden transformations will be easily discerned. In the case of the presumably moderate Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, a good part of the work has been done for us. Here I am referring to an excellent editorial written by Shawn Lawrence Otto, “Tim Pawlenty: The manufactured candidate”:
To have a vision, you have to know who you are and what you want to accomplish. To lead, you have to articulate that vision and have the stubbornness and conviction to push past opposition to the goal. Tim Pawlenty is arguing that he has that, but his vision seems to be that he wants to be president. He wants it so badly that he’s willing to do anything, say anything – be anything. […] Perhaps there is no room left in the world for Republicans who are not willing to “get their mind around the language.” Judging from the ridiculousness of the climate science deniers and creationists in Congress that might very well be the case. To me, the story is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
The invocation of “tragedy” is often ill-advised, but it would be very difficult I think to read Otto’s piece and not see the substance of character flaw with great clarity. (This would however suggest tragedy of an ancient Greek, rather than Shakespearean, cast.) We have all become accustomed to this sort of eleventh-hour political transformation, and I at least find it disgusting. In contrast to Otto, however, I have to assign some of the blame to the religious right, whose small numbers are grossly exceeded by their loud bark, and the Republican establishment which cynically panders to this lunatic fringe. One can be certain that the Tim Pawlenty sort of politician — who forces the intelligent to ask What sort of a fool do you take me for? — will multiply and thrive in the current environment. The rot is structural in nature, not individual, and to single out the former Governor of Minnesota is to miss the point.
Let’s back up and approach the matter from another perspective. I do like to think that persons of faith are offended as much as I am by the Republican primary charade. There’s something especially ugly and insulting about the politician who managed quite well and for decades without public displays of affection for god, but who in the span of a moment becomes a conspicuous attender of church and testifier to his faith. This smooth inauthenticity is worse, far worse, than an honest but below the belt attack. I would rather have one hundred enemies who I can be certain mean me ill than one such friend who I am almost sure flatters me.
It was especially appalling to see the descent of Dole into that pit of obsequious self-negation. I remember when he was a stubborn but principled critic of what we now call neo-conservatism: a hater of the rich and an independent-minded thunderer against trickle-down economics, as well as of other common Republican barbarisms. But like everyone else who wants to be President under the “Conservative” brand name, he had to surrender his convictions and become a pathetic and ridiculous caricature of himself. These days it seems no conservative politician has within him enough iron to hold his natural shape. In they come with their principles and convictions, and out they go having repudiated science and evolution and abortion and modernity and dialectic. No wonder the rest of the world mocks the United States. The political system is doing its utmost to promote the idea that Americans are book burning Flat Earth medieval fantasists.
We all knew that Allen Keyes and Bob Dornan were never going to be President (for good reasons), just as we now know that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann won’t be either. Nonetheless the Republican machinery not only regurgitates these indigestibles but insists that they will constitute the substance of the debate. In the twenty-first century, and in the most advanced nation of human history, we will all therefore suffer the demoralizing insult of want-to-be Presidents who suck up the air in service of their ignorant diatribes against science and human advancement. What a shame that, in such critical times, the Republicans can do nothing but provide the voter with the true believers who will certainly lose and the phonies who win only because they are phony.