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GOP Presidential Candidates Affect Agenda

I thought it was time to write something on presidential politics, as the Republican field shakes down and the remaining candidates, along with a few still lurking in the wings, will soon get even more attention for the things they say, the themes they pursue, the records they possess. Much of the attention, of course, will be on the horse race per se. But that is not the only element of interest here.

The presidential candidates have a different set of goals and motives than their party’s Members of Congress, and their comments, designed to further their own interests, get a lot of attention and shape the narrative and agenda.

For example, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, trying to appeal to the party’s muscular right, said repeatedly in January that Congress should not vote to increase the debt limit — instead, it should just make sure that creditors were paid first from the tax receipts coming in. The worst that could happen? You don’t pay for government. Forget the merits of a plan that would pay off the Chinese before Social Security recipients or soldiers waiting for their pay — the fact is that Pawlenty had a real effect on the dialogue, reducing the chances of a meaningful and timely deal to raise the debt ceiling.

At the same time, the candidates’ records become a template both for their candidacies and for their own visions of governance. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s record has caused him fits, as he has tried to make it conform to his party’s litmus tests without looking like a total opportunist. Of course, that record is mostly focused on Romney’s health care plan, and that in turn has had an effect on the narrative as the House continues its all-out assault on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and its striking similarities to the Romney plan, not to mention the whole idea of how (or whether) you can govern in a bipartisan fashion in a sharply divided era.

For former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the question will be primarily about his service under President Barack Obama as U.S. ambassador to China — and whether accepting the call to public service for a president of the other party will be widely acceptable to a GOP primary electorate that disdains and even despises the president. Huntsman’s memos and emails of praise for the president may cause him real problems with that primary electorate and may take away one of his most powerful themes — that he has been inside the belly of the Obama beast and knows firsthand the need for change. His relative moderation — underscore the relative — on issues such as climate change and same-sex relationships will also get to questions of what the litmus tests really are.

For Pawlenty and another wannabe, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, there is another problem: Will their major narrative — we have served as governors and applied conservative policies and conservative visions, and shown how they can bring happiness, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility — hold up to scrutiny? Pawlenty, who has moved up to a very serious contender with the loss of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels from the race, is getting harsh criticism from some fellow Minnesota Republicans, most notably his predecessor as GOP governor, Arne Carlson. Carlson’s politics are much more moderate than Pawlenty’s. But his critique, focused on fiscal policy, is a serious one. Pawlenty, Carlson notes, used all kinds of budget tricks as he cut spending and cut state taxes, including “borrowing” more than $1 billion from the tobacco settlement that had been set aside for heath care, borrowing more than $1.4 billion from the K-12 education funding, borrowing more than $400 billion from the Health Care Access Fund for low-income families, accelerating tax payments and delaying bill payments. The result was not a balanced state budget but a huge $5 billion deficit, the seventh largest in the U.S. And to compensate for the state tax cuts, localities had to raise property taxes enormously.

For Perry, who won re-election by boasting about Texas’ surpluses and his sterling record of fiscal discipline, the post-election news was very different — a $4.3 billion deficit in the current fiscal year ending Aug. 31 and a projection from the state comptroller that the budget shortfall for the next two years will be $15 billion to $27 billion. At the same time, Texas has built in a major structural deficit of $10 billion annually, over education funding, primarily because Perry’s tax policies have left revenue woefully behind. Texas ranks 50th in the states in per capita spending, so this is not a problem caused by excessive spending but by harsh social policies combined with disastrous fiscal management. Quite a formula for a presidential campaign!

This makes for an interesting horse race. In Iowa, Pawlenty’s natural advantage, the proximity to Minnesota, could be undermined by the candidacy of Minnesota’s own Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was born in Iowa and is a heroine to Iowa’s conservative activists. In New Hampshire, Romney’s natural advantage could be undermined by Huntsman, whose fiscal conservatism and social centrism may find traction among the state’s primary voters. In South Carolina, who knows whether Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Bachmann or some other candidate might catch fire with a group of primary voters who consider ex-Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to be dangerous radicals? God knows who will emerge — or whether any candidate can develop a credible story line that can impress swing voters.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.