If the GOP presidential slate of candidates were a Chinese menu, Republicans would be a lot happier.
If only GOP primary voters could have, on one plate, Mitt Romney’s business acumen, Rudy Giuliani’s name recognition, John McCain’s experience, Fred Thompson’s self confidence, Sam Brownback’s appeal to the conservative base, Ron Paul’s feistiness, Tom Tancredo’s passion and Duncan Hunter’s, well, resilience.
Republicans, who were on top of the world when President Bush was re-elected in 2004, have fallen on hard times. They’ve lost control of the House and the Senate. They can’t agree on a message. And their leader is giving them nightmares.
With Bush facing a possible recession, unable to tell the nation how the mess in Iraq can be straightened out before he leaves office and with his administration under fire for being all but dysfunctional, he has already told a biographer he is looking forward to retirement when he can fill up the “ole coffers” and buy himself a big house in Dallas.
Even though he is worth many millions of dollars, he said he sees no reason why folks won’t be eager to pay him several hundred thousand dollars each for giving speeches. After all, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and his own dad, never known for a silver tongue or “that vision thing,” commanded “ridiculous” bucks for speaking. (Rest easy. At least Bush’s speeches won’t preempt prime time programming.)
So, Bush’s idea of being an Elder Statesman apparently doesn’t mean joining Jimmy Carter in airport lines traveling to peddle diplomacy around the world or picking up a hammer to work with Habitat for Humanity or forming a threesome with his dad and Bill Clinton to work on tsunami relief or fight poverty and disease. He does promise to continue to fight for democracy, despite a less than stellar track record so far.
One thing about the current president — he is no waffler. He says what he thinks and stands by it, even if he has been proven to be totally wrong.
(The newest biography about Bush is, not for nothing, titled, “Dead Certain.”)
Thus, panicked Republicans have to look for their next inspiration and fomenter of grand ideas in one presidential candidate. And with Fred Thompson finally having sauntered into Jay Leno’s studio to announce laconically that he’s running, the lineup is complete.
Unlike the Democrats, Republicans won’t have a woman candidate or a black candidate or a Hispanic candidate. Just the same-old, same-old standard white male. No Oprah endorsement there.
By early next February, less than five months from now, one of those white males will have garnered enough primary votes to get the party’s nomination.
So why hasn’t one of them managed to come up with a cogent message that appeals to a wide spectrum of Americans?
Romney seems to be all over the place on social issues; at the least, his ideas on abortion and gay rights have 180’d since he was governor of Massachusetts. Giuliani seems to have nothing to say besides how stoic he was after 9/11 and how much New Yorkers loved him. Thompson has offered nothing but platitudes and his determination that as a nation we must be stronger not weaker, united and more prosperous without providing any specifics. McCain seems to be a Johnny one note, determined to back Bush on Iraq. The other candidates are not viable enough to be heard.
The reason we have not heard a decent speech yet from any of them is fear.
They are afraid to rile the party base to appeal to new voters. They are afraid to contradict Bush too loudly for fear of alienating their president.
They are afraid to be different.
Except for the one-issue candidates, such as Tancredo who speaks only about how much he hates illegal immigration, they are afraid to dwell on the scores of controversial issues Bush failed to settle, such as immigration, Social Security reform, crumbling infrastructure, the deficit caused by bad spending choices based on politics, the decline of the middle class, the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, America’s declining stature in the world, the growing gap between rich and poor and the lack of civility and competence in government.
The Democrats also may lack good answers but at least they spell out what they would do differently from Bush. So far Republican candidates want to have their cake and eat it too, wishing to be taken seriously without the hard work of offering specifics and workable plans, wishing to offend none and be loved by all.
But in this election, it won’t work that way. The nice guys will finish last. Voters will not be satisfied with empty rhetoric, glittering generalities, simplistic answers and pretty-boy facades.
The first Republican to figure that out will deserve to be the GOP nominee.
If no one does, a Democrat is likely to win.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)