If you were looking for somebody to say last rites for a political party, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be the logical choice. His aged-but-unlined face, patiently pedantic affect and low-blood-pressure delivery all give Pawlenty the air of an amiable parish priest.
But after a grueling California Republican Party convention dominated by doubts about the continuing viability of the Golden State's GOP, Pawlenty's final-night speech to about 200 party faithful turned out to be the only address that fit the occasion. Rather than denying or rationalizing the party's looming extinction in the country's most populated state, the erstwhile Republican presidential candidate merely encouraged the depleted GOP to buck up.
After reciting a long history of Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party dominance in Minnesota – a history that stretches dismally from Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy through Walter Mondale and into the glorious present of Al Franken – Pawlenty concluded, "So don't whine to me about how hard it is for Republicans in California."
Pawlenty has moved on from his defeat in the primary to become co-chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, and that combination of blandsome political muscle generated just one good joke: Pawlenty proposed that his presidential campaign memoir be subtitled "All the way from Minnesota to Iowa." But he makes as compelling a case for Romney as you're likely to hear: that the former Massachusetts governor is a proven business success, that he has no hint of personal scandal, and that he has not "spent the bulk of his adult life in Washington or in a parasitic relationship with Washington."
Given that the only extant presidential candidate at the GOP convention in the Bay Area was Freddie Mac historian Newt Gingrich (whose long and dismal lunchtime speech Saturday was eclipsed by a Ron Paul eruption outside the dining hall), the depiction of Romney as a political outsider was momentarily persuasive.
But that's the real problem for the Republicans. Aging, compromised, morally bankrupt RINOs are no longer just a subgroup within the party. They are the default setting of the party. This is especially true in California, where Republicans happily vilify Barack Obama and Jerry Brown but somehow can't get around to opposing high-speed rail, fighting the cap and trade system that came in this year, or in any other serious way distinguishing themselves from the Democrats. Worse still, the GOP actually opposed Brown's efforts to abolish redevelopment agencies.
The Republicans' inability to engage the Tea Party or the broader libertarian insurrection has been a problem everywhere, but in California, where the Tea Party never happened, the party of Reagan and Prop 13 has almost no libertarian mojo. Given the California GOP's crisis of demographics and relevance, that's a real problem. Pawlenty acknowledged as much in a conclusion that tried to embrace the range of conservatives from social cons and defense hawks through Tea Partiers and libertarians. "We don't have a big enough Republican Party in California," Pawlenty said, "to be throwing people overboard."
This captures the predicament of the California GOP. The party is marginal and becoming more so, but the leadership is deathly afraid of the one proven source of Republican energy and enthusiasm – because that source is considered too marginal. If the California Republicans continue distancing themselves from the libertarian movement, they will continue to suffer, and so will everybody else who has to live in a state where one party has absolute power and the other refuses to compete.