Pawlenty rediscovers health care issue

Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty now appears to realize he missed an important opportunity during Monday’s debate. He had a chance to press Republican rival Mitt Romney on health care policy, but Pawlenty blinked, and has been taking heat ever since.

Pawlenty now seems eager to go in a more aggressive direction. It’s a strategy with two important downsides.

Yesterday, the former governor turned to Twitter to go after Romney on health care. Later in the day, he turned up the heat on Fox News.

Just 72 hours after backing down from a confrontation with Mitt Romney over health care, Tim Pawlenty made clear Thursday night he won’t miss his moment again.

“I should have been much more clear during the debate,” Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, acknowledged in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity. “I don’t think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of Obamacare and then continues to defend it.”

Later, Pawlenty added: “I don’t think you can prosecute the political case against President Obama if you are a co-conspirator in one of the main charges against the president on a political level.”

Rhetorically, that’s not bad, and it’s certainly more of what observers were expecting to hear on Monday night.

So, what are the downsides? The first is that Pawlenty looks a little foolish if he’s only willing to go on the offensive against Romney when Romney isn’t in his immediate presence. It reeks of weakness. (He’ll get another chance in the next debate, which is scheduled for July 10.)

But the more important problem here is that Pawlenty, by focusing on this issue, is tackling a policy on which Romney has had considerable success — and Pawlenty hasn’t.

Indeed, Romney’s policy has worked quite well and is very popular with his former constituents. Pawlenty believes he has a superior story to tell, but the facts show otherwise — the Minnesota plan didn’t improve the number of uninsured (the rate in Minnesota went from 7.7% to 9% after Pawlenty’s “reform”), didn’t reduce costs, and isn’t especially popular with conservative ideologues anyway.

It makes sense for Pawlenty to at least pretend to get tougher on Romney, but the Minnesotan is going to have to hope no one looks too closely at the relevant policy details, because his record on this is awfully weak.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.