CHICAGO – Minnesota GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty took an aggressive line against President Barack Obama’s proposed health care overhaul Friday and insisted that a rejection of the Democratic plan could usher in a Republican resurgence.
“It appears that President Obama is making great progress on climate change, he is changing the political climate in the country back to Republican,” Pawlenty said during a speech to the second annual GOPAC conference in Chicago.
“He went around the country last fall promising ‘change we can believe in,’ but now we see it’s about changing what we believe in,” said Pawlenty, an anticipated 2012 Republican presidential contender. “We need to be calling out the flaws and misguided decisions of the Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration.”
Pawlenty characterized Obama as an “extreme left liberal” proposing a health care plan “that we don’t recognize as supporters of the free market.”
“Medicaid is essentially bankrupt, Medicare is essentially bankrupt, why the heck would we give the federal government another entitlement program to manage?” asked Pawlenty.
The Minnesota Republican threw a number of red-meat lines to the audience of GOP state legislators, including a slam directed at MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews.
“The only thing growing faster than the federal deficit and debt is Chris Matthews’ man crush on Obama,” Pawlenty joked.
Pawlenty, who became vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association following South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s resignation as the group’s chair, projected GOP wins this fall in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and anticipated those victories would spring board the party to success in 2010.
“We already are seeing the Republican resurgence in this county, but it is going to be affirmed and we are going to get great momentum from the victories we’re going to have in New Jersey and Virginia this fall,” Pawlenty said.
But while Pawlenty painted a rosy picture for the GOP’s future, he was sober in his assessment of how current party leadership has chosen to handle recent political fights.
“We had people, leaders in the Republican Party and conservative movement, saying we couldn’t talk about [health care],” the Republican governor said. “Are you kidding me? There is no other pocket book issue that directly affects people as much as this.”
“We need to be more than critics of the Obama administration,” he said. “We can’t just be critics in chiefs.”
In addition, Pawlenty test drove some potential messages for his rumored presidential campaign, speaking forcefully on education reform and broadly going through a check list of some of the GOP’s stalwart issues, including national security.
“We have an educational system in the United States that isn’t cash for clunkers, it’s clash for flunkers,” he said. “This idea in this country that anyone is forced to go to a bad school is disgraceful.”
“This is the civil rights issue of our time,” he said, describing the plight of inner city schools and urging the state lawmakers in the crowd to address the lower performances of schools in some of their states more depressed areas. “It is a disgrace and it is a moral imperative…we need to rise up and fix this.”
Pawlenty also rolled out a social conservative message, something he has not been particularly well known for as the governor of Minnesota.
“It should be ok for all of us to believe in and acknowledge God,” the governor said. “We believe that, it’s ok, let’s put it out there.”
Pawlenty added that “we need to do all that we can to promote family, to promote parenting.”
That social conservative message was well received by several state legislators in the crowd, many of whom were assessing Pawlenty’s chances as a possible presidential candidate following the speech.
“You need to show your social conservative credentials to play well in all markets,” said Chuck Gray, Arizona’s Republican House Majority Leader. “You shouldn’t go over the top, but you need to stress it.”
“He articulated point-by-point the things we need to be talking about,” Gray said of Pawlenty. “He’s right on point.”
“He articulated what our party is about in an intelligent and sophisticated way,” added Marilinda Garcia, a Republican member of the New Hampshire state House. “He did extremely well.”
Another New Hampshire state legislator, Republican Deputy Whip Andrew Renzullo, predicted the governor’s message will play well in the early primary state if Pawlenty were to run.
“He’ll do well in New Hampshire because New Hampshire is all about retail politics and he is a very personable guy,” Renzullo said.
But, Renzullo said of Pawlenty, “he needs to get his name recognition up.”