David Hoppe

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:: Republicans AWOL

They don't have a serious presidential candidate

By David Hoppe

When historians sit down to write about the 2012 presidential campaign, the biggest question won't have to do with the economy or America's foreign entanglements in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The leading question of this electoral season will be why nobody serious wanted to be the Republican candidate for president.

For months, the media has been obsessed with the horse race between Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and the other also-rans who tossed their hats in the ring prior to the caucuses in Iowa. The story, seasoned with a never-ending round of televised candidates' debates, has resembled nothing so much as a reality series like Survivor . Whatever substance the debates might have had quickly took a backseat to candidates' gaffes and calculated one-upmanship.

Pundits have spent weeks eagerly handicapping the odds as various candidates have risen in the polls and then fallen away. First there was the Rick Perry phenomenon (remember him?), then Herman Cain's “9-9-9.” Newt Gingrich had a surge before Rick Santorum elbowed his way into the limelight.

Meanwhile, the improbably named Mitt Romney has managed, by dint of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cash, to remain, more or less, the front runner.

But it is clear that if Romney becomes the Republican nominee, he will have not so much beaten his opponents as outlasted them. He will not have been chosen, but anointed.

What should be vexing to Republicans and, I would say, to the much wider swath of voters calling ourselves Independents, is that all this happens at a time when the presidency of Barack Obama is less than robust.

True, Obama deserves credit for grinding out the clock during his first term. He prevented the country from falling into a major depression, cut taxes for most Americans and tracked down Osama bin Laden. He also presided over an increase in domestic oil production, in spite of a calamitous spill in the Gulf, and passed a major health care bill that promises to be a boon for insurance and pharmaceutical companies. On his watch, corporations have experienced record profits and amassed over $2 trillion in cash. Finally, not a single CEO has been sent to jail for the shenanigans that precipitated the crash of 2008.

If Republicans were to be honest about it, they would admit that Barack Obama looks more like one of them than, well, a Democrat.

This, I suspect, is why most serious Republicans have chosen to sit this election out. It's hard to debate someone you tend to agree with.

It's also why those who have ventured into the ring have been reduced to calling Obama a socialist, communist, or worse, and why the Republican campaign has devolved into a battle for a fraction of a fraction of the American constituency.

The perverse thing about this is that America supposedly has a two-party political system. Therefore, what the candidates of one of those parties — in this case, the Republicans — have to say about how they would govern the country gets taken seriously. So, out comes the press, recording the candidates' every move and taking down their quotes.

Unfortunately for everyone but satirists, those quotes have included such pearls as Mitt Romney's, “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in.” Or this, from Rick Santorum: “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that's OK; contraception is OK. It's not OK. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both claim to be Republicans. This enables them to run for the presidency as if they stood for roughly half of us. That neither Romney nor Santorum are what any thinking adult could call truly serious is beside the point. They get the attention anyway.

This reminds me of the way media covers what is arguably the most important issue of our time: climate change. First, the press divides the issue into two opposing camps — those believing that human-inspired climate change is happening and those who deny this. Then, in the name of “fairness,” a story will include quotes from both sides.

The trouble with this method is that scientific research finds overwhelming evidence of the human role in climate change. There is no room for a fact-based debate about this fundamental point. The debate, instead, should focus on what we should be doing about it. Covering both sides as if they are equally serious keeps us from getting down to a serious discussion about policy.

The same thing is happening in the coverage of our politics. As long as the media invests unserious candidates like Romney and Santorum with an attention they have neither earned nor deserve, debate about policies that might actually help this country is stifled.

And politicians with serious ideas stay at home, watching TV like the rest of us.