Health Care: Pawlenty's Secret Weapon in 2012?

Today in "Breaking News That's Been, Like, Totally Obvious for Months Already": Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the former veep hopeful and recovering mullet victim, wants to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Now, maybe it was the steady stream of television appearances that tipped us off. Or the increased presence at out-of-state GOP fundraisers. Or even the sleek new haircut. But for some reason, when we read over at Politico that T-Paw "has been quietly assembling the blueprint of a presidential campaign and will announce Thursday the support of a group of high-level political strategists and donors, complemented by a handful of top new media consultants," we weren't exactly surprised. 

Normally, we here at Gaggle HQ would be the first to argue that blabbering about 2012 in October 2010 is a bit premature. But Pawlenty's recent maneuvers may actually have a lot to do with the issue at the heart of this season's political slapfest: health-care reform. Earlier today, my colleague Katie Connolly ably summarized the governor's pluses and minuses as a potential GOP standard-bearer. On the upside, he's a bright, well-liked team player with blue-collar roots who has proven he can win on Democratic turf; on the downside, he's an unfamiliar (and somewhat bland) face with little national experience—and even less money. But what Katie didn't mention is Pawlenty's position on health care. Right now, I suspect that it will define the 2012 Republican primary battle, at least in part. And chances are it will give the Minnesotan a significant boost—whether or not it should.

Here's my thinking. In all likelihood, Congress will pass health-care reform legislation sometime before the end of 2009. The plan will inevitably become the GOP's bête noire—the "overreaching," "unpatriotic," "Stalinesque" monstrosity trotted out by every Republican presidential hopeful as Exhibit A in their case against Barack Obama's "new socialist world order." The question is, which GOPers will be making this case--and how credible will they be when making it?  As Politico notes, "many establishment Republicans [believe] that Pawlenty is becoming the sole viable alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney"; in this theory, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin are simply too divisive to be electable.

Assuming, then, that Romney and Pawlenty do face off in the finals, Pawlenty has at least one distinct advantage: while Gov. Romney passed a universal health-care plan in Massachusetts that looks largely like whatever will come out of Congress, Pawlenty recently took the opposite tack, seeking to balance the budget by cutting millions of dollars in funding from MinnesotaCare, a government-supported insurance system for working-class Minnesotans that had previously slashed the state's percentage of uninsured residents to one of the lowest levels in the country. In The Washington Post in August, "Imagine the scope of tax increases, or additional deficit spending, if that approach is utilized for the entire country." At least on health care, 2012 could wind up being "Pawlenty: Small-Government Cost Cutter" vs. "Romney: Obama Lite."

Also helping T-Paw: the fact that Obama's heath-care changes won't go into effect until 2013. Without any actual statistics, stories or, you know, facts to contradict him, Pawlenty can paint the gloomiest, doomiest possible picture of the costs of reform, both human and economic. At that point, it'll all still be hypothetical. And when he contrasts his reductions with Obama's expansions, he can conveniently gloss over the fact that removing 113,000 people from the state-funded health-care rolls will actually wind up costing Minnesotans more in the long run—mainly because, as studies have shown, "people without coverage are more likely to postpone cost-effective checkups and other preventive treatments until they are felled by a condition significant enough to warrant a trip to the hospital emergency room," where the increased cost of uncompensated care (currently at $601 million in Minnesota and doubling every five years) means increased premiums for everyone else.

But that process takes time. Instead, I'm betting we'll hear a lot about Pawlenty's steely-eyed budget hawkery in 2012. Or, as it were, sooner. Let the games begin.