Monday, July 11, 2011

Tim Pawlenty Attacks Michele Bachmann on Meet The Press

Tim Pawlenty had his first major Meet The Press interview of the campaign season this Sunday. Although these interviews tend to address a wide range of topics, usually only a few excerpts will make news. It can be treacherous territory. Recall that back in May, Newt Gingrich stumbled out of the gate by making serious gaffes during a Meet The Press interview.

This time, the big news is that Pawlenty issued a fairly strong attack against his rival, Michele Bachmann. Pawlenty's precise words were that "[Bachmann's] record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent." Although candidates frequently can (and must) contrast their accomplishments with their opponents', Pawlenty's statement was rather categorical: Bachmann has achieved nothing.

Was Pawlenty wise to make such a strong attack against Bachmann?

We've observed in the past that Pawlenty's campaign has a split personality. Sometimes he is criticized for being too "Minnesota nice" and failing to take a stand. Other times he seems to go overboard with his attacks. This reflects the challenge of a consensus candidate strategy. His aim is to be the last man standing. He must allow his opponents to devour each other, while he stays out of harm's way. But it's very easy to become impatient. The consensus candidate strategy does not pay off until near the end of the game. Up until that point, such a candidate will appear to be making little progress.

It seems that Pawlenty's enduringly low poll numbers have spooked his campaign, and Pawlenty is trying to appear more tough. There's value in appearing tough, as (potential) candidates like Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and Rick Perry have demonstrated. But it can't be an act. It's not natural for Pawlenty, and voters will see through it.

The more fundamental problem with Pawlenty's approach is that a candidate cannot build himself up by tearing others down--not when there are so many candidates in the field. Even if he did hurt Bachmann, the benefit would not necessarily go to him. In fact, "going negative" early will leave voters with a bad feeling about Pawlenty.

True, Pawlenty is competing for many of the same people who currently support Bachmann (at least in the polls). But that's all the more reason not to alienate those voters. It's a good idea for Pawlenty to show off his own accomplishments. That's a far cry from writing Bachmann off as "nonexistent" in Congress, however. Many of Bachmann's early supporters will likely find their way into the camps of other candidates later on. They may even eventually buy into the idea that Bachmann doesn't have a record of legislative accomplishments. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, they won't join his camp if they remember him as the guy who attacked Bachmann.