Surely You're Joking, Gov. Pawlenty!

06/14/2011 09:09 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Minnesota has the reputation of being a boring, button-downed place. Yet former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty manages to keep coming up with the most outrageous proposals of this year's Republican presidential field -- evidently to convince Tea Party voters that, all the evidence to the contrary, he is one of them. Last month, he proposed a series of tax and spending cuts that only added up if you adopted the 1980s view that tax cuts pay for themselves by driving economic growth to absurd new levels. (Note: As the governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty relied on no such gimmicks to cover his state's deficit.)

But now Pawlenty's tacking to the right -- way right -- on the issue of the government protecting the public's health and safety. There's precedent, of course. Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann have already made themselves seem robustly in favor of dirtier air and water simply by suggesting that we abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. (Bachmann's probably serious. Gingrich probably isn't but sees it as a plausible way to express an extreme viewpoint -- that we could implement clean air and clean water rules in some other way and through some other cabinet agency.)

But Pawlenty isn't about to be outdone. He has come up with an idea that, if adopted, would bring the entire American economy to a grinding halt: "Sunset" every federal regulation, unless it is specifically reauthorized by Congress. He would do this over a three- to five-year cycle. Now Pawlenty no doubt thought people would imagine that this would primarily affect the high-profile clean air and water regulations that are promulgated by the EPA (and which the Koch Brothers and other Republican financiers loathe so intensely). But the EPA's clean air, clean water, and pesticide standards are only a tiny fraction of the federal regulatory network.

For instance, there is Title 14, Part 91, which contains General Operating and Flight Rules for commercial aviation. Here we find special regulations for flights to Somalia, Iraq, North Korea, Ethiopia, Syria, and Alaska. And what about Title 21, Chapter I, Subsection C, Part 211, in which the Food and Drug Administration sets out the rules that govern quality standards for manufacturing prescription drugs?

If Congress were required to review the entire corpus of federal regulations every three to five years, it would certainly be working very, very hard -- and doing nothing else. Current Congressional practices like filibusters and long recesses would quickly go the way of the dodo. But the American economy would soon be tied up in knots, because someone in the government has to decide things like where commercial airplanes can fly and where airspace is reserved for the military. The result of not making those decisions would make our current concerns about air travel safety seem quaint -- we would be doing al Qaeda's job for it. Someone has to make sure that when we buy prescription drugs they are not counterfeit. Even the assurance of buying a brand-name product depends on the federal regulations that enforce our trademark laws.

So, Pawlenty can't possibly have actually meant what he said. But it appears that no one seriously expected him to.

It's true that the standard for saying things that you truly believe is low among this year's Republican presidential field. The frontrunners -- Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, plus the seemingly imploding Newt Gingrich -- have all spent years, even decades, in the conservative mainstream of the Republican Party. They favored federal clean air and water regulation (albeit with lots of loopholes), wanted a rapid transition to clean energy from oil, believed global warming is a serious threat to the U.S., and favored cap and trade as the right policy tool to combat that threat.

Huntsman says he still believes in his past positions; this simply isn't the right time to act on his convictions. Gingrich says he's no longer certain whether people have caused global warming or not, but we ought to take prudent steps to minimize it regardless. (In 2008, that was Mike Huckabee's position -- if God sends a flood, we put up sandbags anyway.) And, until now, Romney was holding on to his lead in the GOP flip-flopper race by claiming that, while he once favored cap and trade programs on climate, he now believes the world's climate has changed throughout history and that "we should not take extreme measures when we are unsure of human role in global warming."

Then came Pawlenty. As of this moment, no one in the mainstream media has blown the whistle on his caricature of a proposal. And as long as the media keeps letting Pawlenty and the other Republican candidates talk nonsense, America is in real danger of ceasing to be a serious nation.

What's most alarming is how little public support it takes to send these candidates off the deep end. A recent poll shows that the historic positions taken by Gingrich, Huntsman, Romney, and Pawlenty are hardly poison pills among Republican voters. Half of Republican voters, and almost three-quarters of all voters, think global warming should be a high priority for the nation's leaders. More than three-quarters of Republican voters believe that environmental regulations are good for the economy. And on clean energy, Republican support soars to 85 percent!

Apparently a tiny minority of Tea Party extremists, backed by the Kochs and allied right-wing money, have hijacked the Republican Party's entire nominating process. Is anyone paying attention?