Opinion: Advice to GOP Debaters - You Can't Run on 'No'

GOP presidential hopefuls debate in South Carolina in January 2008.

You'd think the Republicans would be smiling. The economy shows no signs of turning by the 2012 election, a bad sign for any incumbent. The GOP caucus in the Capitol has ensured that Democrats can't govern effectively, giving the president very little to run on in his re-election bid. And Obama is facing criticism and dissatisfaction from all sides.

So why has the Republican Party become so unhappy with their crop of presidential hopefuls that they keep hoping for even more aspirants to enter the race? The conservative electorate seems more excited by the people who aren't running (ahem, Chris Christie of New Jersey) than by any of the team of candidates who will take the stage tonight for the Republican debate.

Mitt Romney has an endless flow of campaign cash and has been running for years. Tim Pawlenty can point to two terms as the governor of an important swing state. Newt Gingrich was once the pioneer of his party. Michele Bachmann has been the darling of the new right wing. Ron Paul helped spark this whole Tea Party energy.  

And yet, despite these credentials, and despite the unpopularity of their rival party, Republicans don't really believe any of these candidates can get the job done.

Maybe it's because these candidates spend more time running away from tough topics than they do running for president. Maybe it's because saying no is a good negotiating tactic in Washington, but not an inspired vision for governing. Or maybe you just sometimes like a temperament - like Bachmann or Paul - when they are a supporting character, but can't imagine them playing the lead.

So, a note to the GOP hopefuls: in tonight's debate, be a leader.

It's easy to criticize President Obama (I do it at least once a week on It's A Free Country) and maybe popular too - but anyone can do that a leader needs to do more. It's easy to call for cuts, but tell us what you'll cut. And tell us your priorities for funding and how you'll fund them. Tell us something that isn't obvious: Like where you disagree with The Tea Party or see common ground with the Democrats. Tell us you have a vision for a great America - not an every-man-for-himself country, but a society we'd all be proud, where we again believe next generation will be better off than our last.

Tell us how our nation can be a leader - neither a follower nor an aggressor, not insular or everyone's police force - in the global community.

It's hard.  When you say something bold, you get attacked. When you break from the party line, you get slammed. When you get noticed, you get criticized.

But if you don't get noticed, you don't get remembered…and voters will keep dreaming of the Garden State's chief executive bully.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."