Waiting for Godot

Watching the GOP presidential nomination race reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play “Waiting for Godot.” Nearly all Republicans are unhappy with the field as it currently stands; many hope a savior will show up, rescue the party, and lead it to victory against Barack Obama in November 2012.

Recent polls show that none of the Republican candidates currently hold a lead against the president. Against a generic GOP candidate, Mr. Obama holds a 5% lead according to Real Clear Politics.

The numbers look worse for GOP contenders when each individual squares off against the incumbent: the president has 6% lead over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, an 8% lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a 14% lead over former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and a 16% lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Real Clear Politics hasn’t averaged out polls for Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and President Obama’s former ambassador to China, but he’s down double digits (anywhere from 10-21%) to the president in all the polls listed.

Two other contenders who haven’t yet declared fare just as poorly. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is down 15% while Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is 18% behind.

With such a weak field, it’s no surprise that Tea Party Candidate and former C.E.O. of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain, “won” the Fox News Presidential Debate two weeks ago in South Carolina. Cain has spent the last several years as a talk-radio host blasting big-government and telling his listeners that the American Dream is under assault by profligate politicians in Washington.

Cain’s victory in the debate reminded the media of the seven little dwarfs, the term used to describe 1992 Democratic presidential contenders who decided to buck conventional wisdom and run against a seemingly unbeatable incumbent: George H.W. Bush, who’s approval ratings soared to 90% in early 1991.

While Cain won many new converts in his debating performance, many Republicans were left to wonder: Is this the best we got?

Which leads me back to Samuel Beckett’s play: “Waiting for Godot” centers around two characters—Vladimir and Estragon— anticipating the arrival of a savior named Godot. Neither have never met Godot, wouldn’t know what he looked like, but are certain he would fix their problems as soon as he appears. But Godot never shows up—and though Vladimir and Estragon vow to give up on him and head home, the play ends with them staying put, convinced Godot will arrive eventually.

Republicans keep hoping for the arrival of their Godot.

Many activists and pundits argue that he doesn’t have to enter the race until the summer. They point out that campaigning has fundamentally changed over the last decade. The internet and a social media allow candidates to build a fund-raising apparatus overnight. Conservatives look at the Howard Dean’s grass-roots money-making machine in 2004 and note President Obama’s remarkable 2008 campaign, which used Facebook to mobilize young voters. They desperately want either House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (WI) or New Jersey governor Chris Christie to enter the race and rescue the party from its current field.

Both Ryan and Christie have demurred, so far. Even if they entered the race, both have challenges.

Democrats have already begun attacking Ryan’s House budget and his proposal to change Medicare. Ryan proposed amending the entitlement program for those under 55, essentially offering a $15,000/year voucher to keep the program solvent. President Obama said Ryan’s plan “would lead to a fundamentally different kind of America.” The Agenda Project, a liberal group, recently released an ad entitled “America The Beautiful,” which showed Republicans throwing Grandma off a cliff and they argued that America would not be beautiful without Medicare. No doubt this will preview the hyperbolic ads we’ll see leading up to Campaign 2012.

Chris Christie has a different kind of problem. He’s only held elected office for a year and a half. But he’s become a conservative darling in that time period. Republicans love him for his tough talk and the way he’s stood up to teachers’ unions. In 2010 he became a YouTube sensation. Recently he showed the efficacy of conservative fiscal policy. He cut taxes upon assuming office last year. This month, the state announced it would receive an additional $900 million in tax revenue. Christie has said he wants to finish his term in Trenton and has turned down offers to run for the presidency

So if Superman doesn’t swoop in and save the GOP, what should the party do? The Republicans need to separate Obama the man from Obama the charismatic figure. So says conservative scholar Shelby Steele, who maintains that Republicans must do a better job of tying the president to his record. Steele notes that Donald Trump has been the only “Republican” figure who’s gained traction against Obama.

Trump was the leading Republican in the polls earlier this year, due in part to his tough talk on the president’s record. Trump had no trouble calling Mr. Obama “the worst president in my lifetime.” The real-estate magnate then went on to discuss the president’s liabilities: Obamacare, unemployment at 9%, a $14 trillion debt, our trade deficit with China, creeping inflation, and rising gas prices.

Keeping the focus on Obama’s record is the key to victory. Elections center on an incumbent’s record. Republicans should keep hammering home the president’s performance. Fox News political analyst Brit Hume has made this point repeatedly since last fall’s mid-term elections.

The president’s domestic record speaks for itself. There’s no sign that his policies will spur the economic growth necessary to get unemployment down. Republicans just need to nominate a sober individual who looks responsible and capable of governing.

They certainly have men who fit that description. Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels immediately jump to mind. Both have attractive records as Midwest governors.

The GOP doesn’t need Godot. They just need to nominate a viable alternative and point to conservative fiscal success by Republican governors in New Jersey, Indiana, and Texas.

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