Activists protest corporate greed and a lack of jobs. The U.S. unemployment… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)
It's a monthly ritual in the race for the White House. The government releases a lackluster employment report, and President Obama's Republican challengers leap at the chance to condemn his jobs record.
"He's going to have a hard time putting perfume on this pig," Mitt Romney snapped Friday morning on Fox News shortly after the report for November came out.
What Romney ignored, as Republicans running for president routinely have, is a pattern in the jobs numbers: For 21 straight months, the number of private-sector jobs has grown, by a total of 2.9 million. The main job losses — 446,000 over the same period — have occurred in government, a decline that would only accelerate under plans advanced by the GOP candidates themselves.
The trend held on Friday, with the Labor Department reporting a gain of 140,000 private-sector jobs in November but a loss of an additional 20,000 government jobs.
In addition to their proposals for the future, the Republican candidates have also taken positions in the past that would have heightened the most recent government job losses. Many layoffs of local and state government employees were postponed by Obama's 2009 stimulus package, which the GOP White House hopefuls have roundly denounced.
And some of the newly jobless were teachers and others whose layoffs Obama had tried to avert through $35 billion in federal aid to states, which the GOP candidates also opposed. Fellow Republicans in Congress killed that proposal.
The Republican candidates have struggled to outdo one another with plans to scale back government. But in doing so they have emphasized the bloodless slashing of departments and agencies rather than the jobs involved. The hardship of laid-off public employees has gone largely unacknowledged by the Republican candidates, even as they decry the slow pace of acceleration in private-sector jobs.
"My heart breaks as we approach the holidays for American families who have been abandoned by this president so that he can implement his radical agenda," Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said in a statement on the November jobs report.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have both vowed to cut 10% of federal jobs — in Romney's case through attrition. Paul would eliminate the Interior, Commerce, Energy, Education and Housing and Urban Development departments, along with the Transportation Security Administration.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has proposed abolishing three agencies, one of which — the Department of Energy — he famously could not remember in a debate. Bachmann has vowed to cut not just federal jobs, but also salaries.
To varying degrees, all of the candidates have also pledged tax cuts so deep that they would siphon money now forwarded to state and local governments, triggering further job reductions. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed eliminating capital gains and estate taxes and cutting the corporate income tax from 35% to 12.5%.
Collectively, the candidates argue that shrinking government will spur the creation of private-sector jobs, even if it means losses for government workers.
"That's where we're going to absorb the millions who are unemployed," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was director of domestic and economic policy for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and is unaligned this year.
Republican efforts to scale back government have bred long-standing tension between the party and government workers. Fresh evidence came Tuesday in New Hampshire, where Perry threatened to punish Health and Human Services employees who would try to block his healthcare agenda.
"I don't think you can fire federal bureaucrats, but you can reassign them," he said. "So reassign them to some really God-awful place."
Public employee unions are a mainstay of the Democratic Party. In that context, the lack of any nod by the GOP candidates to the pain endured by laid-off public employees and their families comes as no surprise, said Merle Black, a politics professor at Emory University.
"Both parties look to their own constituency groups first," he said. "That's what they're supposed to do. That's what they see as their mission first — is to take care of their constituencies."
Job creation remains the highest priority for voters. Overall, despite the narrow gains of recent months, the nation remains nearly 1.9 million jobs short of where it was when Obama took office and 6.3 million jobs shy of peak employment in January 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The figures are certainly not as strong as anyone would like them to be, so there's plenty of room for the candidates to grab onto the figures and criticize the president," said Mark A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
And by ignoring the human cost of government job losses, he said, Republicans are only following a maxim of campaign politics: "When something works against you, you're better off not talking about it."