Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, has officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Pawlenty has made his reputation as tax-hawk conservative: as governor, Pawlenty fought with state lawmakers over Pawlenty’s refusals to hike taxes to cover budget shortfalls, and his “Better Plan” speech doubles down on tax-cutting rhetoric. As a bonus, having worked on John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign should provide Pawlenty with some close-up, real-world examples of positive and negative campaign moves. Pawlenty is being discussed as the chief GOP rival to Mitt Romney for the nomination, but with primary season still six months away, that assessment is obviously premature.
The glaring problem with the Pawlenty campaign is that he is a strong supporter of a modified Flat Tax. While most Flat Tax proposals create a single tax bracket, Pawlenty’s instead creates three brackets – 0% for “those who currently pay no income tax”, 10% for income up to $50,000 ($100k for married couples), and 25% for everything else. In principle, a Flat Tax removes complications and complexities from personal finances (and surprises on April 15) while making it easier for the government to find tax cheats. In practice, no candidate for the presidency who supports a Flat Tax has even survived a primary – Republican or Democratic – let alone won the presidency. Pawlenty will have to either abandon this plan or make history by winning the nomination.
To be fair, the specific plan Pawlenty endorses has not been part of a presidential platform before. Americans appear to be more frustrated than ever with the economic climate (and, as TEA Party anger demonstrates, tax policy specifically). The GOP in general has begun embracing sweeping changes to long-held conventional wisdom – plans to radically reform Medicare and union protections the more notable among them – and Pawlenty could well capitalize on that willingness to return to the drawing board to move the Flat Tax forward in the campaign season.
Tim Pawlenty will draw on his experiences working with John McCain’s presidential campaign to mount his own. He should also research the campaigns of Jerry Brown (1992 Democratic primary) and Steve Forbes (1996 Republican primary); and efforts of former House Majority Leader (and FreedomWorks chairman) Dick Armey and former Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Trent Lott (R-MS). The things they have in common? None has ever won a presidential primary or implemented a federal Flat Tax. Pawlenty will have to run a historical campaign to beat this historical precedent.