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'The Vision Thing'

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Rick Santorum protests that Mitt Romney "can't close the deal" with GOP voters -- a truism that, truth to tell, could apply with equal force to Rick Santorum, not to mention Newton Leroy Gingrich or even, come to think of it, Ron Paul.

The Republican presidential campaign has been dispiriting, all right. With Gingrich and Santorum doing their best to render it more dispiriting still, with their forecasts of calamity should the probable nominee -- Romney -- become the actual nominee. Propped figuratively against the classroom lectern, Prof. Gingrich warns us the party has produced no weaker nominee since Warren G. Harding in 1920. At least Harding won the election, Gingrich fails to note, before dying in a morass of scandal, bequeathing us the sensible, if underrated, Calvin Coolidge as president.

What is, is and can't be changed by professorial or political caterwauling. The Republican Party goes plan-less into the most crucial election of the past three decades: No presidential bench, no unified idea as to what needs doing. By contrast, the Democrats need no bench; they have Barack Obama. Their big idea for the present is to tout all he has done, supposedly, for the general good: saving the auto companies, corralling Wall Street, fending off economic collapse, whittling down joblessness, extending health care coverage, etc., etc., all of which has a healthy and handsome sound.

What the GOP lacks, overall, in 2012 is identity and design. What's the plan, folks? And who is going to execute it? Three decades ago, the answers were clear. The plan was to cut taxes, rekindle economic energies, rearm the armed forces, and restore flagging spirits. Who was going to do it? Ronald Reagan, it eventuated, was going to once he overcame the overmatched (if decent and patriotic) George H. W. Bush.

The GOP had not wasted its time in the post-Watergate wilderness. It had ideas: sophisticated responses to the sterility of the Nixon, Ford and Carter years. It had candidates -- plausible ones; people very different in caliber from the under-qualified, under-experienced likes of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman.

The ideas mattered most of all in 1980. That seems the point the party of 2012 hasn't grasped yet: not even half as well, perhaps, as Barack Obama seems to grasp it in his own way. Awful as the notion might be of a national health care system the country can't afford without economic ruination, Obamacare is an idea -- a stab at curing a perceived problem. It's out there. It's something. The GOP has no "something" with which to counter it. The spade work has never been done or to the extent some things have been done (e.g., Congressman Paul Ryan's sensible voucher plan), they haven't been embraced and sold. This is because no overarching vision informs Republican policy wonks.

Where's "the vision thing," as the first President Bush called it, to justified derision? What we see instead of a structure for national renewal is a series of poll-driven talking points -- $2.50 gasoline, respect for the troops, overhaul of tax rates, the Keystone pipeline, and voter ID to prevent fraud.

Fine. Thanks for all of this. Where, nonetheless, is the vision? No vision, no inspiration. No inspiration, no presidential candidates to challenge and lead. The closest we come perhaps to inspiration in 2012 is Mitt Romney's entreaty to let him straighten out the economy in a businesslike manner.

What might serve? The vision of freedom, possibly? The vision of opportunity and growth in a climate of freedom? Why not? Prospects are small that the party of Barack Obama means to tout freedom (as distinguished from "choice" in contraceptive devices) as a goal worth winning.

Why not, in any case, make the underlying purpose of America -- life lived without chains -- a rallying cry in this most urgent of elections? On from there to the practical policies necessary to give freedom the needle jab ... and from there? Maybe to speeches and debates centered, for a change, on realities that in better times than these overshadow mere ambition, mere peacockery.

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