The Sunday morning political talk shows were all curiously obsessed with a single narrative yesterday: has Mitt Romney blown it and handed the election to President Obama?
If you look beyond the charts showing President Obama either tied in or leading ever so slightly in the toss up states – Florida included – and Mitt Romney inching ahead in none, and the spectacle of those Democratic commentators struggling to reign in their giddy glee at Romney’s current predicament, it’s interesting to note that the response from the GOP side fell generally into three camps.
First, there were the eternal dreamers, who like to make comparisons to 1980, another year when Republicans sought to topple a first-term Democratic president running for re-election in a mediocre economic environment.
President Jimmy Carter was tied in the polls right to the very end with Republican Ronald Reagan, they like to point out, but Reagan went on to sweep 44 states in a landslide victory. Few beyond the party’s most optimistic supporters are expecting a similar result this year.
Next are the pragmatists, who say Hey, both Romney and Obama are still tied in the polls and there are six weeks left, so anything can still happen, which is true.
Then there are the pessimists, who seem ready to throw in the towel and say If we lose this year, we know who to blame: Romney!
In some ways this is patently unfair. Yes, Romney got plenty of bad press for his now heavily-publicized “47 percent” comments at the South Florida fund-raiser last May, but the truth is, if the GOP nominee were 10 points ahead of the president, nobody would care. So-called “gaffes” on the campaign trail always look worse if the nominee isn’t doing better in the polls.
But if Romney does lose in November, I won’t be among those who say “Bad candidate,” with the implication that a less boo-boo prone nominee would have done wonderfully.
The pessimists are right about one thing: in an economic environment like this one, when an incumbent president has to defend four straight years of unemployment over 8 percent, a housing market that remains in the tank and an environment where banks still won’t do much lending, the opposition party should be soaring. So why is it that they’re not?
I think there’s two reasons.
One problem, I’d say, is 2010.
During the midterm elections, Republicans basically argued that it didn’t matter what their message was, the important thing was getting rid of the Democrats who had presided over the recession for two years and hadn’t turned things around. It worked – Republicans won landslide victories in races for Congress, the U.S. Senate and the governors’ offices.
All good, except for one thing – a lot of those Republican officeholders haven’t done much better at turning the economy around. Just ask Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said his experience as a private business owner, rather than as a career politician, would give him the savvy know-how to boost Florida’s ailing economy.
Well, in July, the Sunshine State’s unemployment rate rose from 8.3 percent – already much higher than the national average of 8.1 percent – to 8.8 percent. In August, we stayed at 8.8 percent. Economists say if it wasn’t for discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force altogether, Florida’s unemployment rate would actually be above 10 percent.
If you’re going to provide a solid alternative, make sure you actually have one.
By winning so big in 2010, the GOP may have collectively raised expectations that their platform of cutting state and federal spending, taking on public employee unions and cutting taxes would do what Obama’s stimulus did not – and so far it hasn’t worked, either.
Romney himself has championed the now decades-old Reagan playbook. He loves cutting taxes, which are too high. He wants to keep us safe by spending more on national defense. And there’s still plenty of room to balance the budget after tax cuts and defense increases.
The party loyalists love it, but I can’t help but wonder if the very swing voters that Romney and camp had so handily expected to carry over President Obama are weary of this platform. It has a phony ring to it all; why no specifics on where the spending cuts will come from? Why no details on how to make up the lost revenue from those tax cuts? How will laying off state employees bring down the unemployment rate?
Anyone who has watched President Obama struggle to turn around this incredibly weak recovery is probably looking for incredibly clear, precise answers on how to boost the housing market, how to get banks to start lending, how to stabilize the job market … not the same-old same-old golden oldies/greatest hits package from yesteryear. More than a few of the swing voters who might otherwise have been safely for Romney may be thinking about Walter Mondale’s famous line against Democratic primary rival Gary Hart in the 1984 presidential debates: Where’s the beef?
Right now, I suspect, those swing voters are starving for some beef from either side.
I thought about this over the weekend as I watched Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan during his visit to the University of Central Florida on Saturday, when he pledged that a Romney administration would be supportive of the space program – a major employer on the Space Coast here in one of the few remaining swing states.
It’s not easy, I admit, to campaign for steep budget cutting when it might mean having to actually cut jobs-producing programs in states you need to win. At that point, it’s always easier to be the Santa Claus nominee who says Yes I believe in cutting the budget – but not in Your back yard!
Democrats pull this same scam. Thhey like to tout their support for cutting defense spending – unless it’s at a weapons plant in a swing state that employs hundreds or thousands – and they like to also say they’ll end tax loopholes for big corporations – unless it’s a large employer in a swing state. Then, not so much.
And that may be Romney’s ultimate problem: what, exactly, is a conservative alternative to Obama’s big government spending these days if you accept 99 percent of the government we have now? Even Rick Scott, who pledged to be one of the universe’s great budget cutters, is now urging Congress not to cut defense spending because it would take millions of dollars out of Florida’s weak economy. It’s always easiest to hate big spending when it goes somewhere else.
In these final weeks, I think Romney can defeat a president who seems clueless about turning around this anemic reovery.
But can Romney do it by being the Santa Claus who will balance the budget — but not on the backs of the swing state voters?
Not a chance.
He has five weeks to articulate a genuine path to economic recovery that does not involve President Obama’s vision for an expanded federal role in the economy. The question is, does Romney have that vision?
Or is he just the Santa Claus who wouldn’t dream of bringing a drop of bad news to a single crucial swing state?
Voters gave the GOP an opportunity in 2010 to provide a strong alternative to Obama — did they deliver?
Or is Romney running on a golden oldies message that has become stale and uninspiring to a lot of swing voters today?
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.