Truth: The Second Term Challenger Trap

Mondale did it. Dole did it. Kerry did it. Tim Pawlenty is definitely doing it.

And it makes some degree of sense, after all: when running against an incumbent president, it is important to highlight both what you believe the mistakes of that administration were and what new things you bring to the table. Moreover, the insistence that the current administration is not being honest with the American public generally satisfies the work ethic of the base, who are generally convinced that everything they’ve been told by the opposition is a lie in the first place. You can get them out and waving flags for the next several months.

The trouble is: there are two rules of campaigning that I tend regard as being as immutable and basic as the boiling point of water, both of which are ignored at the peril of the challenger candidate. The first is: he who owns the optimistic future can win the presidency. The second, intimately tied to the first, is: don’t lecture the voter on how badly they screwed up the last election.

“Hope” and “Change” are good choices for an optimistic campaign. And they worked. Tim Pawlenty’s announcement advertisement chooses instead, “Truth.”

Well, we all prefer to be told the truth. But we’re less inclined to listen to a candidate who introduces themselves as the person who is going to tell you what a silly person you are for having believed the last guy. Voting is a thing two thirds of our population isn’t really into in the first place, but that last third puts a lot on the line when they step into the voting booth. And if things aren’t working out like we thought they would with our chosen president, we’re perfectly willing to make a change.

But we’ll make a change to the guy who looks like he can get the job done, not the guy who thinks he knows what we did wrong last time. Pawlenty says he, “could promise that we can eliminate a $14-trillion debt, create jobs for 10 million people, restructure Social Security and healthcare all without making any tough decisions,” but he doesn’t think such optimism has any place in a job interview. He knows exactly what’s wrong, but he can’t promise he’ll fix it. Rather, he thinks he, “could just tell you the truth.”

And with that, Tim Pawlenty makes a firm commitment to spend at least a couple million dollars of someone else’s money seeking at least the Republican nomination – though he’s not going to promise that he’ll win, naturally – and it will all be in vain. Seriously, if you were interviewing plumbers, doctors, accountants or seasonal help at Walmart, would this by the guy you would hire?

On eve of announcement, Tim Pawlenty promises to tell the truth –