What Have You Done for Me Lately, GOP?

As I watched Wednesday night’s GOP presidential primary debate on CNN, I couldn’t help but notice that the four surviving Republicans are old news. Three have been out of power for a political half-life. Mitt Romney hasn’t been governor of Massachusetts for five years. Likewise, Rick Santorum hasn’t been in the Senate since January 2007. Newt Gingrich hasn’t been in Congress since 1999. If they weren’t campaigning day and night, you’d think they were retired.

Ron Paul still serves in the House — he was first elected in 1976 — but he cannot point to a major initiative in which he played a leading role.

When Romney, Santorum and Gingrich talk about their records, they talk about — or run from — what they did last decade or two decades ago. As for Paul, he boasts about what he didn’t do over the years.

Cynics say the American voter has no memory. In this primary, voters had better have a long memory if they want to understand what the candidates are debating.

Consider this Wednesday night quote from Gingrich on a border fence: “I helped Duncan Hunter pass the first fence bill in San Diego when I was speaker of the House.” That would be in 1996. Hunter is retired from Congress. Hunter’s combat-veteran son, Duncan D. Hunter, was elected to his father’s seat in 2008.

Gingrich also talked up his ability to solve problems. He cited his “background of having actually worked with President Reagan.” That covers the 1980s.

Gingrich also boasted that he could bring the price of gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon. Well, at least he didn’t say 25 cents.

Paul hearkened back to the Cold War. He told the Mesa, Ariz., debate audience to forget about Iran and nuclear weapons. “If you want to worry about nuclear weapons, worry about the nuclear weapons that were left over from the Soviet Union. They’re still floating around.”

When he’s not running from his record as the Bay State’s governor, Romney boasts about his role in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Romney chided Santorum for endorsing former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in the 2004 GOP primary. The year 2004 — that’s how far back a Republican has to go to find usable goods against a rival.

Romney tried to end the debate by talking about a “brighter future” for America. His problem is that he has been running for the White House for so long that he doesn’t have a present.

It’s not good when a candidate has to talk about himself in the past tense. “When I was speaker,” Gingrich has been known to recall. You can practically smell the mothballs.

Santorum sounded far beyond his 54 years when he railed during the debate, “When I was in the United States Senate, there was transparency.”

Here’s another problem: When your record is dated, voters may not remember why decisions, which you now regret, seemed like a good idea at the time. When Santorum apologized for his 2001 vote in favor of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education package, the Arizona audience booed.

Were the candidates who dropped out of the race better? Sort of. There are three formers and two presents. Gone are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry remain in office.

When dissatisfied Republicans look at today’s has-been field and dream about a brokered or contested convention, they sigh longingly about Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Another man at the top of the list is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose tenure ended in January 2007.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was 71 when Republicans nominated him in 2008, but he was in the thick of the action. He still is. McCain was in Cairo last week, standing up to Egypt’s repressive new leadership.

Not this pack. They no longer represent anything. They only work for themselves.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

Share this!

Enjoy reading? Share it with your friends!