On Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry got into the race for the GOP presidential nomination, and within 24 hours, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty got out.
Perry didn't exactly chase Pawlenty out of the race; the Iowa straw poll (in which T-Paw finished a distant third) did that. But the two developments are closely related. They're linked by the fact that Barack Obama is very beatable.
A lot of the preliminary autopsies of the Pawlenty campaign focus on two lines of argument. An explanation particularly popular among liberal pundits is that he was too ideologically moderate for the "extreme" GOP. The second line of thought is that he was too personally moderate, by which people mean he's so dull he could bore a cat out of a tree.
Neither theory is baseless, but they're both pretty weak. Mitt Romney is arguably even more boring than Pawlenty, and he's leading the polls. Moreover, Pawlenty ran well to Romney's right, on health care and even foreign policy.
The whole rationale for Pawlenty's candidacy was that he could defeat Obama.
T-Paw often told audiences that on ideology there was little difference between him and the other candidates. What made him different, he explained, was electability. That's a bad message for inspiring primary voters. And it's a catastrophic message if you're a bad candidate. When you run on electability, you better act like a really electable candidate. Instead, with his half-hearted jabs at Romney (It's Obamneycare! No, it's not! Yes, it is!), his graceless shots at Michele Bachmann and his seemingly manufactured passion, Pawlenty hardly looked like a general election juggernaut. Take electability away and you don't even have a generic Republican.
And that's important because over the last few months, President Obama has been losing to the "generic Republican" in the polls. In May, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, he had an 11-point lead against the generic Republican. By the end of July, it vanished as independents defected in response to a lousy economy and Obama's feckless leadership during the debt debate. That Obama dropped below 40 percent approval in the Gallup tracking poll for the first time the same weekend Perry got into the race is telling, symbolically.
The "tea parties" breathed new life, and new controversy, into the so-called Buckley rule, named after the late William F. Buckley. Bill used to say he wasn't for the most conservative candidate but the most conservative candidate electable. This practical principle was thrown out in several Senate races, including the disastrous nomination of Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware Senate race last year.