Bachmann and Pawlenty: Where’s the Policy in this Grudge Match?

Politico misses an opportunity

My colleague Greg Marx on Thursday gave something of a laurel to the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman for a report on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s record in that post. Marx writes that “in directing attention toward the policy record of a credible candidate, the article makes a welcome contribution to the early campaign coverage.”

Politico has missed an opportunity to make a similar contribution.

In a story headlined “The Michele Bachmann-Tim Pawlenty Grudge Match,” Politico’s James Hohmann does a credible if slightly gear-grinding job outlining a rivalry between the two Minnesotans that dates back a decade. But where Hohmann might have focused on key policy differences between the two—and thus illuminated for primary voters reasons to vote for or against the candidates—he chooses instead to focus on personalities and how the rivalry might affect 2012 strategy.

Will “lightning rod” Bachmann steal some of “boring” Pawlenty’s thunder? Will she siphon off the conservative vote? How much are those possibilities pissing Pawlenty off? That sort of thing.

Here’s the set-up.

While both are card-carrying Republicans, they are members of different GOP tribes, never at war but not exactly at peace either. Now the congresswoman and the former governor are on a crash course that could shed revealing light on an already distant and awkward relationship—testing the Minnesota Nice ethos.

At times the history of animus that Hohmann paints feels forced. Arguing that the pair “disagreed over Pawlenty’s potential,” the reporter notes that Bachmann backed a more conservative candidate for governor back in 2002. That doesn’t suggest much else besides these two people being politicians. If Hillary got over 2007-08, I imagine these two got over 2002. Hohmann then notes: “Pawlenty ultimately won, setting the stage for years of mostly below-the-radar conflict between the two Republicans on issues ranging from tax breaks for rural counties to education policy and cigarette taxes.”

I emphasize this because its is exactly what feels missing from the piece. We get colorful quotes aplenty—an operative close to both parties saying Pawlenty “would like to rip her lungs out right now”—but never learn who was on what side in the debate about the education policy, No Child Left Behind, and get just two short pars on the cigarette taxes.

In one instance, Bachmann teamed up with Phil Krinkie, then a leading fiscal conservative in the state House, for an unsuccessful last-minute try at removing a 75-cent-per-pack cigarette tax supported by Pawlenty as he sought to close a budget deficit in May 2005.

As a result of her sharp criticism of the controversial deal—which was negotiated by Pawlenty—Bachmann was stripped of her state Senate leadership position.

Great. But the rest is mostly backroom whispers and horse race odds. It’s entertaining, sure, and there is a place for watching the game as it unfolds. But there should also be scale. A couple of policy paragraphs in a story that requires you to click through four pages to finish feels like not nearly enough.

The two-from-Minnesota angle is an interesting one in this GOP primary and one that I haven’t seen a lot of (maybe I’m not looking hard enough). It affords a real opportunity for some enterprising reporter to compare and contrast Pawlenty and Bachmann’s policy positions and history in the mechanics of the state’s government. If that also includes a bit of animosity, all the better—we’re not against color. But it should be the dressing, not the salad.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,