Photographer: Evan Sung
Photographer: Evan Sung

Earlier this month, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, promised that his package of tax cuts, spending cuts and regulatory reforms would boost real gross domestic product growth to 5 percent annually for 10 years, cutting the deficit almost in half along the way. Sounds good, right? But why is Pawlenty setting his sights so low?

Economists, of course, think his opening bid already places him in fantasyland. “The trend growth rate is not going to be 5 percent in the United States,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top Republican economic adviser and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, told Talking Points Memo. “The market just doesn’t support that.”

Alan Blinder, a former Clinton administration economist and Federal Reserve vice chairman, had a cheekier take.

“Trend growth is 3 percent or so,” he wrote in an e-mail to me. “Five percent growth would be 2 percentage points higher, which should cut the unemployment rate by about one percentage point per year. So after 10 years, it will have fallen from 9 percent to minus-one percent. Nice trick!”

Pawlenty wasn’t impressed by such defeatist math. “Is this aggressive and bold?” he responded on Fox News. “Absolutely. But I don’t buy into the declinist view and attitude of President Obama that we’re going to settle for anemic growth or average growth or that America’s going to be a laggard.”

Growth Targets

In other words, if you don’t believe Pawlenty can generate 5 percent economic growth for 10 years, you don’t believe in America. How does Pawlenty respond to Representative Ron Paul, who used the Republican debate in New Hampshire this week to suggest that 10 percent or 15 percent annual growth is attainable if only we return to the “sound money” policies that Paul favors? Does Paul simply believe more fervently in the goodness and potential of the American people?

At another point in the New Hampshire debate, the former governor asserted: “If China can have 5 percent growth and Brazil can have 5 percent growth, then the United States of America can have 5 percent growth.” Actually, for almost 30 years China’s annual economic growth has been closer to 10 percent than 5 percent. The U.S. should be able to hit those numbers, too -- provided we stay on the candidate’s logic-train.

In theory, Pawlenty should suffer for opening his campaign with such a flurry of economic nonsense. This is the candidate, after all, who titled his book “The Courage to Stand” and made the phrase “Tell the truth” the theme of his announcement speech. Now he’s peddling magic beans for the American economy.

Smart Strategy

The more depressing view, however, is that this is a smart strategy. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has observed, “provoking liberal ridicule is a very useful skill for Republican presidential candidates.” If you’re attempting to prove your conservative bona fides, inciting the ire of liberals and the condescension of experts and the Lamestream Media is an excellent credibility-enhancing strategy.

Pawlenty’s approach avoids the problems bedeviling former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who’s trying to convince conservative-base voters that they shouldn’t be turned off that lots of centrists and even a few liberals seem to think Romney would make an acceptable president.

Romney’s health-care plan is the fulcrum of this balancing act. Few dispute that, at the time it was enacted, Romney’s plan got a seal of approval from many conservatives. Pawlenty himself hailed Romney as a “nimble and gifted public policy leader” and said that the individual mandate at the heart of Romney’s health reform was a “potentially helpful,” if insufficient, way to get more people insured.

Romney Squeezed

The problem for Romney is that Democrats agreed and included the individual mandate in their own plan. You’d think that conservatives would applaud the Republican who convinced Democrats to abandon more liberal plans in order to embrace a policy endorsed by conservatives ranging from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch to former Kansas Senator Bob Dole. But, of course, you’d be wrong.

In a world where liberal criticism is a badge of conservative honor, liberal praise is scorned. Romney’s health-care reforms are popular in Massachusetts; they are also his biggest obstacle to the Republican nomination. “President Obama said that he designed ObamaCare after RomneyCare and basically made it ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty told “Fox News Sunday.” “What I don’t understand is that they both continue to defend it.”

This is the strategic choice facing the Republican contenders. Pawlenty has chosen to appeal to the embattled partisans who prefer that Democrats express distaste for their candidate’s ideas. That’s one road. Romney is going in an opposite direction, working to prove he’s the sort of Republican whom moderates and independents -- and even some Democrats -- will support in 2012.

It’s too early to say which strategy will prevail in the Republican primary. But it’s pretty easy to predict which is more likely to succeed in the general election. At this point, Pawlenty’s presidential hopes appear even less realistic than his economic plan.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: wonkbook@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net