Pawlenty Two-Steps On Health Care And States' Rights

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is a self-professed "Sam's Club Republican"-- fiscally conservative. But when it comes to legislation, Pawlenty balks at buying in bulk. During a tele-town hall run by the Republican Governors Association on Friday, Pawlenty pushed against President Obama's national health-care reform proposals, invoking states' rights under the Tenth Amendment. He raised the possibility of filing Tenth Amendment lawsuits, but softened his remarks over the weekend, telling ABC's "This Week" that the federalism battle should not be in courts but that "in the political sense, in the common sense arena, we need to have a clear understanding of what the federal government does well and what should be reserved to the states." Pawlenty slipped in a jab at ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in his remarks, deriding the Bay State's health care as the nation's most expensive and a prime example of "Obamacare" gone awry.

Over the past few weeks, Pawlenty has stepped up his rhetorical game as he positions himself as a go-to GOP voice on health care and a 2012 presidential contender. But can he play the 24-hour news cycle like Sarah Palin (witness her remarks on death panels)?

Pawlenty is checking the pulse of the conservative wave embodied during Saturday's "tea party" protest in Washington. The Minnesota governor has given credence to the basis behind the false "death panel" argument and his push for federalism was certainly on the minds of protesters this weekend. "Don't Tread On Me," read the yellow flags and stickers of many marchers, declaring the return of the Republic of Texas.

But as Pawlenty picks up soundbytes and appearances on the national stage, his challenge may begin at home. 92% of Minnesotans have health coverage, mainly through their employers. On Saturday, Obama staged a health-care rally in Minneapolis, drawing on his campaign spirit and eliciting the "Yes we can!" cry from 15,000 attendees. And today, as state Republicans proposed a "health care freedom of choice" amendment that would give Minnesotans the right to choose private health care plans, Pawlenty distanced himself from the states' rights argument once again.

Democratic critics argue that Pawlenty's balancing of the state budget has been a doomed tightrope act, setting up an unsustainable system of budget cuts combined with no tax increases that will collapse after he leaves office in 2010.  None of this is to say that Pawlenty is beleaguered, though. A swing state governor married and loyal to the same woman for decades might be just what Republicans need in 2012. But whether it's what they want remains Pawlenty's job to answer. Free of gubernatorial obligations, we can expect to see more of him on the national stage.