Commentary: Will the GOP ever get serious about 2012?

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

There’s no getting around it. The only way to get ahead these days is to Put Yourself Out There.

You are no one without your Twitter account, your Facebook page, your on-line portfolio. Privacy and modesty are so dark ages. There was a time, probably when dinosaurs roamed the land, when boasting — or “tooting your own horn,” as the cave moms would say — was considered poor form. Now, it’s not just acceptable, it’s mandatory.

The truly ambitious must advance through multiple tiers of exhibitionism. Start with Facebook. Advance to YouTube. Next stop, a TV reality show. Followed by a regular gig on a network talk show. Then you write your memoir and take it on the road. And once you reach the top of your game (or not) you run for president!

This is what the 24-hour news cycle and unlimited Internet platforms and the public’s hunger for entertainment have wrought: the presidency as a publicity stunt.

All campaigns have their unserious candidates. Think Alan Keyes, Ralph Nader, Steve Forbes, Al Sharpton, to name a few. Mickey Mouse snares a share of votes in every presidential election — for real.

But never has it been so easy for publicity seekers to command the limelight.

Sarah Palin wrote the book on it, with her provocative Facebook posts, her FOX News gig, her reality TV show and, yes, her books. The woman has made a fortune just holding out the idea of running for president.

Newt Gingrich is a washed-up politician with a past as checkered as a tablecloth. His campaign staff bailed because they didn’t think he was serious about a campaign. But there he is, pushing his books, raising a bit of money and actually coming across as a grownup during some of the GOP primary debates.

And then there’s the Herman Cain phenomenon, a publicity stunt run scarily amok.

Say this about Cain — he is Out There. He has hosted a talk radio show, written a syndicated opinion column, run for the U.S. Senate, worked the motivational speech circuit and written five books. He’s even run for president once before, in 2000.

Cain started his second presidential run the same way he completed his first — as an unserious candidate. He displays a shocking lack of interest in and knowledge about foreign affairs. He thought that as president he could sign an executive order outlawing all abortions. Like Gingrich, he has had trouble holding on to staff.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a campaign 2012 footnote: Herman Cain caught fire. Conservative voters fell head over heels for the folksy candidate with the unworkable but oh-so-catchy 9-9-9 tax “reform” scam.

As of this week Cain was toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney in the polls, and it’s unclear whether expanding allegations of sexual harassment complaints against Cain in a former job will dim the ardor of his fans.

Character really isn’t an issue in the publicity stunt candidacy. It’s all about how you present yourself.

What’s left of the Republican establishment would very much like to shut down the Cain circus and get on with the task of prepping Romney to take on President Barack Obama.

Oh, but why stop the party so soon?

Herman Cain’s troubles are nearly as riveting as reality star Kim Kardashian’s impending divorce. And please, bring on more GOP debates. They’re not great for clarifying the issues, but as entertainment they are unparalleled.

Sooner or later, though, we will have to get down to business. Herman Cain is not going to be the Republican nominee for president.

Romney, a serious candidate with a resume of substance, will almost certainly run against Obama, who has served with dignity and purpose, even as he goes prematurely gray from the burdens of the job.

We wouldn’t have it any other way. As for the publicity seekers, there’s always another book deal, or maybe a talk show offer. Why serve if you can Just Be Out There?