The GOP desperately needs a spokesperson

Adam Salmon Contributor
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According to reports, Newt Gingrich is about to announce that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee, but his camp has denied those reports — nay, Gingrich is merely exploring the idea of forming an exploratory committee, which (if formed) would not necessarily mean he is actually running for president. Meanwhile, the rest of the GOP’s potential presidential candidates continue to sit on the sidelines.

Enough already. With every week that passes, the GOP suffers a setback of silence. Silence on the labor protests in Wisconsin. Silence on the remarkable events unfolding across the Arab world. Silence on the looming budget showdown in Congress. Silence on persistent high unemployment and a laggard economic “recovery.” Silence on the rising price of gasoline and other commodities.

The GOP needs someone with a high name ID to announce that he or she is running for president and then become the party’s de facto spokesperson.

High-profile presidential candidates are valuable because they can set the terms of the debate, put the incumbent on the defensive by assailing his record in office, and draw attention to their party’s alternative vision — in essence, they can lead the opposition. But because no candidate has declared his or her candidacy, the Beltway media is completely caught up in the “will they or won’t they?” rumor mill.

There’s no doubt that defeating a seated president is an exceedingly difficult task. That no legitimate candidate has stepped forward to take on this responsibility, however, is shameful.

Consider Mitt Romney. Here is a man who has effectively been running for president non-stop since 2007. He’s worked Iowa, he’s worked New Hampshire, he’s taken trips abroad, he’s written the de rigueur platform autobiography, he’s worked the stump for candidates nationwide, he’s got a wealthy and active PAC, he’s polling well and he has a campaign-ready and campaign-tested infrastructure in place.

He has negatives, of course, chief among them is how closely the health care reform law he passed as governor of Massachusetts resembles Obamacare. He’s also seen by some as an opportunist, a bit plastic, a bit too well-groomed, and more than a little wishy-washy on certain core conservative issues.

The irony of this criticism is that, if ever there was a time for a political opportunist to pounce, it is now. Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, and a growing number of independents are desperate for someone — anyone — to take on Barack Obama. Romney can counter these negative perceptions by showing some fight, by breathing some fire on the stump, and by delivering a blow-by-blow of his experience with Romneycare. By airing it all out — by describing in detail what is working in Massachusetts, what has failed, and what he has learned about the health care system in this country as a result — he could stand apart from Obama as an authority on unintended consequences. He could defend his Massachusetts initiative as a prerogative that he rightly had as governor, while emphasizing that more state-based reform efforts are needed before we impose a heavy-handed federal health care mandate on everyone.

But Romney is nowhere to be found.

Contrast this with President Obama’s attitude in the run-up to the 2008 election. Part of what made candidate Obama so appealing to so many is that he pursued his party’s nomination with a certain spiritedness, despite the long odds he faced against prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton. He was as opportunistic as they come, bashing George Bush at every stop, taking on the Democratic establishment, raking in huge sums of money and building his legendary campaign network by laying out a soaring vision for the future.

Presidential campaigns are almost always more about the last four years than the next four, but someone has to stand up and make the choice clear to the American people. Perhaps Sarah Palin believes she is doing this, but while her Facebook missives and tweets tend to grab headlines, no one is compelled to take them seriously since she has no skin in the game. Until she, or Romney, or one of the other GOP pretenders is willing to put their behinds on the line, it’s all just white noise in today’s media.

And that may be worse than silence.

Adam Salmon is a proud graduate of the University of Kentucky and was formerly in operations management at a D.C. think tank. He is currently on the prowl for a position on the Hill. Follow him on Twitter @adamjsalmon.