Mr. President, the Republicans Mean Business

These countless GOP debates are creating strong candidates for the general election



There's a scene in the first Rocky film that has a certain resonance today. Just before the big fight, Apollo Creed's manager catches Rocky Balboa training on television. "Hey, champ," says the manager, "you ought to come and look at this boy you're gonna fight on TV. It looks like he means business."

Apollo, the best boxer in the world, ignores the warning -- a move he comes to regret.

I wasn't sold on this exhausting series of GOP debates, but something interesting is happening. Every debate, there's a different frontrunner, and consequently a different person who absolutely must perform. Every debate, the candidates adjust their performances. Some need overhauls. Some need fine-tuning. But with every debate, the candidates are improving, not only as individuals, but also as an accurate reflection of the Republican Party.

The reason we've seen such weird and unexpected candidates surge with each news cycle isn't because a vast swath of the GOP base thinks Herman Cain would make a credible standard bearer, or a swell President of the United States. Rather, each candidate (except for Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum -- give it up, guys) has at one time or another added some big idea to the national conversation.

The Right Direction / Wrong Track numbers at Real Clear Politics are 20 percent to 73.3 percent. This is a country in serious decline, or so it feels. I don't think anybody knows how to fix it, but I think everybody knows that what we're doing right now simply isn't working. That's why 9-9-9 played so well. Though it didn't survive scrutiny, it was the kind of bold stroke that people are hungry for. This is something we've never tried before. Let's talk about it. Cain's surge was a vote of confidence not in Cain, but in thinking differently. The same goes for Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and now, it seems, Michele Bachmann. With every debate, people get something new to discuss in front of the water cooler.

Mitt Romney is almost certainly going to be the nominee. He is not an exciting candidate, but he doesn't have to be. The electorate isn't really discussing names; it's discussing what change will look like. Romney doesn't need water cooler conversation because he is a vague blur. His debate performances have been rock solid, and as the competition falls away, he will be the natural beneficiary of the stirring ideas of this primary.

But more than anything else, the country is getting a grand tour of the Republican tent. If the party is demonstrably big enough for both Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, it's probably big enough for some non-trivial part of the 73 percent. Which means the demonization candidate Romney is sure to face simply won't have traction. Because of these debates, the GOP isn't as scary as it used to be. And even if some candidates are objectively terrifying (e.g. Rick Perry), it doesn't matter because he won't be the nominee. The takeaway will be: A party with ideas nominated a sane guy.

That's a pretty good place to be.

Where does that leave President Obama? There's a lot to like about the president, and a lot to dislike. But right now, it doesn't feel like he's even running for office. There is zero momentum for his campaign. The best thing that could have happened to him would have been a primary challenge. He would have then had a platform to clarify exactly what he stands for, and defend and advocate his positions in a way that doesn't feel condescending or sanctimonious. His chance will come in the general election, but will anyone care by then? Will he really be able to crush Mitt Romney in a debate the way he disposed of John McCain?

When Senator Obama promised change, what people heard was "...from this lousy economy." Today it's hard to keep a straight face and say: "This is the change I wanted. This is the economy I wanted." Even granting the administration's claim that it "saved or created" millions of jobs, all that matters is how it feels. And it feels like we're doomed.

Is this Congress's fault? Probably. But people love their own representatives. It's always the other guy, the guy I can't vote against. But you know who I can vote against?

The president would do well to look at these men and women on TV. It looks like they mean business.