“Can’t anybody here play this game?”

    Don’t forget to circle May 5 on your calendar! Fox News is slated to broadcast the first Republican debate of the ’12 presidential election cycle, live from South Carolina, and the stage will undoubtedly be crowded with the party’s best and brightest…Whoa, allow me to amend that. Here are the debaters: Newt Gingrich (unelectable), Buddy Roemer (huh? who? he’s an ex-Louisiana governor who hasn’t run for anything in 20 years), Ron “Gold Standard” Paul (unelectable), Tim Pawlenty (he’s on the waiting list for a charisma transplant), and Rick Santorum (unelectable). Right now, that’s it. And Newt hinted yesterday that he might not even show up.Good grief. Tuning in to watch that lineup is akin to buying baseball tickets for the Camden Riversharks. Can’t the Republicans field even a decent minor league team? Or, as Casey Stengel reputedly said while managing the New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” The Republican talent thus far seems so thin that NBC, Politico, and the Ronald Reagan Foundation recently felt compelled to postpone, until autumn, a long-planned California debate originally scheduled for May 2. A Reagan Foundation spokesman said with great diplomacy that those sponsors prefer to wait until numerous “impressive” candidates inevitably come to the fore. But the South Carolina Republican party is forging ahead on May 5 anyway. I know I speak for all Americans when I say that the impending Game of Thrones on HBO can’t possibly be more scintillating than watching Buddy Roemer cross swords with Ron Paul.As I said in my Sunday newspaper column, Barack Obama’s re-election prospects are enhanced by the opposition’s vacuum at the top. This vacuum is also historic; according to Gallup, rank-and-file Republicans haven’t been this tepid about their choices since the dawn of modern polling in 1952. Indeed, Mitt Romney – who formally announced his exploratory committee yesterday, and who, by dint of his business and political experience and his ’08 campaign seasoning, should normally qualify as the clear frontrunner – barely pulls 20 percent of likely Republican primary voters. Actually, his Massachusetts health care plan, a model for the new federal law, is only part of the problem; and his Mormon faith, which turns off a lot of Christian conservatives, is only part of the problem. More fundamental is the fact that he comes off as a conventional politician – at a time when the Republican base is looking for someone unconventional. In the words of ex-Bush strategist Mark McKinnon, “People don’t want the Cola. They want the Un-Cola.” Yet Romney’s 20 percent tops the field; that’s the worst showing for a GOP top guy in Gallup history. The situation is apparently so dire that Republicans on Capitol Hill are openly dissing the prospective candidates. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas reportedly said yesterday, “Republicans have always been for who’s next in line, and there’s nobody in line.” Congressman Charlie Dent, who represents a Pennsylvania swing district said that “people back home want to see more options.” And California congressman David Dreier said – here’s a shocker, you’ve never heard this one before – “Everybody’s looking for a Ronald Reagan, and they don’t see one.”But if the GOP’s House and Senate members are so unimpressed with the likely ’12 lineup, why don’t they put some of their own serious players on the field? (Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann are not serious contenders; besides, no sitting House member has ascended to the presidency since 1880.) The Senate is the natural place to look, but not a single sitting senator has voiced interest in running for president (John Thune and Marco Rubio have said no) – and that’s unusual, given the fact that your average senator sees a president when he looks in the mirror. Why so few takers on Capitol Hill? Because congressional Republicans are engaging in risky political behavior – threatening shutdowns, proposing to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid – and that could easily burden a candidate who has no choice but to own it.And why do so many other Republican desirables seem inclined to sit out 2012? Because it’s tough to take on an incumbent who’s armed with $1 billion and who will likely be buoyed by an incrementally improving economy. Yesterday, in fact, The Wall Street Journal surveyed 56 economists and found that 71 percent foresee a likely second Obama term (plus, there was a general consensus that the economy will hit 3.6 percent growth by the end of the year, that it will add 200,000 jobs a month over the next year, and that the jobless rate will be down to 8.3 percent by the end of 2011).Which brings us to that May 5 minor-league contest. I have a fantasy solution for Fox News: Scrap the whole thing, and propose an alternative debate that would be limited only to those Republican players who have exhibited zero or fleeting interest in the race: Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Thune, Rubio, Gen. David Petraeus, and perhaps Mike Huckabee….that would be a far more impressive lineup. I’m not sure what should be done with the ubiquitous but increasingly marginalized Sarah Palin, but perhaps she would thrive best off stage, sharing birther chatter in a padded room with Donald Trump.

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