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For Romney, it's back to being Reaganesque on the economy

July 07, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks about job numbers Friday in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks about job numbers… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

There's nothing like a third consecutive report of weak monthly job growth to perk up a slow news day. In case you missed it, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that only 80,000 nonfarm jobs were added in June, and the unemployment rate remained at 8.2% for the second consecutive month.

This news is disappointing if you're a job seeker waiting for some sign of spark in the economy -- unless the job you're seeking is the presidency and one of the central themes of your campaign is that the incumbent is incompetent. Sure enough, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney jumped all over the jobs report, saying, "Not only is the 8.2% number unacceptably high and one that’s been in place now for over 41 months, but in addition, if you look at the broader analysis of people who are out of work or have dropped out of the workforce or that are underemployed in part-time jobs needing full-time work, it's almost 15% of the American public."

Ahh, Mitt, you silver-tongued devil you. Nothing like a little "broader analysis" to rouse the troops! (And not to quibble, but the unemployment rate was actually below 8.2% earlier this year; I think you meant to say that it's been over 8% for 41 months.)

Reading Romney's remarks made me wonder if it wouldn't be easier for him if he were a Democrat and President Obama a Republican. Instead of parsing just how bad things were, he could just say the situation was unacceptable and go straight to his plan to create jobs by repairing roads and building transit systems, hiring teachers, training workers in new fields and developing new technologies. In short, he could talk about spending (or, ahem, "investing") because that's the straightforward Keynesian approach to the situation.

But he's not a Keynesian, so Romney's jobs message Friday was significantly more abstract, built largely around the notion that government could help the economy by doing less. That includes lifting the barriers to the Keystone XL pipeline, reducing tax rates and regulatory burdens, and repealing the 2010 healthcare reform law. The exception was in trade policy, where Romney talked about such direct government actions as "opening up new markets" and "cracking down on China when they cheat."

But if I'm reading recent history correctly, voters don't necessarily favor candidates who call for direct government action when the economy is struggling. They tend to favor candidates who represent a break from the current policies, whatever they may be.

The best evidence of this is Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1980. Reagan's economic proposals were much like Romney's: lower tax rates, less regulation, a tougher response to foreign competitors, less federal spending.

As Romney is doing, Reagan also stressed the need for stronger leadership. But for good reasons or not, that was an easier message for Reagan to convey than it's been for Romney. The former was considered a rock-ribbed conservative, despite his more moderate record as California governor. The latter is dogged by a reputation for flip-flopping and excessively nuanced positions.

Anyway, it wasn't so long ago that the economy seemed to be building steam and Romney had to adjust his stump speeches to stop harping on how bad things were. He's playing that card again now as the economy stagnates. Voters don't seem to be giving up on Obama yet; the discouraging economic news hasn't moved the needle in campaign polls. But if the anemic growth continues through the summer, it may not really matter what Romney's jobs plan is. It may be enough just to not be the incumbent.

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