GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, who toured a charter school Thursday,… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )
Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's "Day One" ads, whose second installment was launched this week, do manage to grab its audience by the guts: By focusing on the deficit, unfair Chinese trading practices and job-killing federal regulations (three topics that no doubt ranked high in internal polls of Americans' top economic concerns), Romney aims to solidify his position as the candidate who knows and cares most about economic issues. It's too bad he has so little to say about them. On our relevancy meter, this one is Debatable.
"What would a Romney presidency be like?" the narrator intones in this week's ad. "Day One, President Romney announces deficit reductions, ending the Obama era of big government, helping secure our kids' futures." That's a magic trick worthy of Harry Potter. Congress controls the federal budget; presidents can make spending recommendations, but Romney can't end the era of big government with a wave of Dumbledore's wand. His high points for relevance are matched with demerits for truthfulness.
"President Romney stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules," the ad promises. This is another claim that will strike a chord with Americans of all political persuasions. Blue-collar workers -- even the union workers who tend to vote solidly Democratic -- are clamoring for a crackdown on Chinese trading practices, while conservatives have long pushed for a stronger U.S. response to Chinese currency manipulation. By remaining unspecific, Romney's ad appeals to both sides. But what would Romney actually do when it comes to relations with our biggest trading partner? That's a lot more complicated than one could explain in a 30-second ad.
The White House immediately pounced on this segment of Romney's commercial, claiming that it represents yet another flip-flop. In his 2010 book "No Apology," Romney blasted President Obama for making a formal complaint about Chinese tire exports. "President Obama's action to defend American tire companies from foreign competition may make good politics by repaying unions for their support of his campaign, but it is decidedly bad for the nation and our workers. Protectionism stifles productivity." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney mocked Romney on Thursday for seemingly occupying both sides of the free-trade issue. But Romney has actually been relatively consistent on this point. He thinks requests for protection or subsidies are occasionally warranted but that, in most cases, including Obama's tire complaint, they aren't.
What he apparently means by demanding China "play by the rules," based on multiple statements during the GOP debates, is that he would label China a currency manipulator, as well as cracking down on theft of intellectual property. That's an increasingly popular position in Republican circles, though the traditional free-trade wing, including former GOP candidate John Huntsman Jr., still complains that such policies would set off a damaging trade war.
Romney's third promise in his latest ad is just as vague as the other two: "President Romney begins repealing job-killing regulations that are costing the economy billions." Which ones? It's an appealing line for conservatives who are convinced that government policies are holding back free enterprise, but assessing the costs and benefits of regulation is phenomenally difficult. Environmental rules that crack down on polluters, for example, cost smokestack industries money but save money on another end by reducing healthcare expenses for those breathing cleaner air. Removing those regulations benefits polluters but not the economy. Meanwhile, when you take away regulations on things such as mine safety or the handling of toxic materials, expensive and deadly disasters tend to ensue. So it matters a great deal which regulations Romney intends to eliminate. Remaining unspecific is politically wise, but of all Romney's promises, this is the one that's most potentially dangerous if he should end up in a position to keep it.