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In defense of undecided voters

October 01, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, arrives to campaign in Springfield, Va., and President Obama arrives back at the White House after campaigning in Virginia Beach, Va.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, arrives to campaign… (Associated Press )

The Times' Op-Ed page featured a cartoon Monday that captures much of the cognoscenti's befuddlement about voters who haven't yet decided whether to vote for President Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Drawn by Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it shows a man sporting an "Undecided Voter" T-shirt at a fast-food restaurant counter, struggling to decide whether to add fries to his order. "I love fries ... but they're bad for me ... but they are yummy ... but they may clog my arteries ... but they are yummy," the man mutters while the woman taking behind the cash register fumes, "I can't believe the future of our country is in his hands!"

Political junkies and policy wonks see this race as a contest between such radically different approaches to government that it's hard for them to understand why anyone could still be undecided. But University of Maryland economist Peter Morici offered a good answer Monday, arguing that neither side's campaign has addressed voters' main worries about the source of the economy's problems and the right way to solve them.

"[T]he basic GOP message -- lower taxes, deregulation and free trade -- is unappealing to voters scarred by the Great Recession and corporate abuses," Morici wrote. "Policies that boost the economy without ending the Manhattan gravy train, or curtailing unfair trade without raising wages, would only benefit those who Mr. Obama wants to tax more aggressively: the wealthy who have done quite well while the nation as a whole becomes poorer. Mr. Romney -- and the broader GOP -- have not adequately explained how he would deliver growth, jobs and fairness. President Obama surely is not delivering on growth and jobs, but at least he appeals to voter's desire for a greater measure of economic justice."

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Obama vs. Romney

It should be noted that Morici is no fan of Obama's. But he nails the basic problem with Romney's message to non-Republicans: It's not clear how cutting taxes, scrapping regulations on Wall Street and negotiating more free-trade deals will put more people back to work.

If you understand (and agree with) the philosophy underpinning those planks, Romney's message is far more appealing than Obama's. Lower taxes would mean more money for businesses to invest and consumers to spend, which should lead to more demand for goods and, consequently, more hiring. Fewer strictures and paperwork demands on banks would free them to make more capital available for businesses to expand the economy. And more trade pacts would lower tariffs and other trade barriers, which should help the United States more than its trading partners because our barriers to imports are already low.

But if you haven't bought into that philosophy, it probably looks like an awfully indirect approach to high unemployment, a depressed housing market and a global economy still reeling from last decade's debt binge. U.S. corporations are already sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, so it's not clear why increasing their cash reserves would induce them to expand. It's also hard to tell what the effect of Romney's tax cut would be, considering that he's said he'd eliminate enough tax breaks to make the whole exercise "revenue neutral." Does that mean some people would pay more and others less than they do today? And if the changes didn't reduce the amount of revenue collected, how would they stimulate the economy?

Obama's economic "blueprint" has a bit of old-school job creation, proposing to spend more on infrastructure and on local teachers, firefighters and police. But much of his plan seems as indirect as Romney's, with tax breaks for selected businesses, better enforcement of trade agreements and more efforts to make college affordable. Besides, the president has harped so much on the need to raise taxes on high-income Americans that some voters may think tax hikes are the sum total of his economic plan.

Oh, and yes, Obama has presided over a recovery so painfully slow, more than 12.5 million Americans remain unemployed and 8 million underemployed. That's not a big confidence-builder.

As both parties have said repeatedly, the contrast between Romney and Obama is sharp enough to make this an easy choice for many Americans. Nevertheless, I can see why a voter who wants a candidate to make a compelling case that his plan would actually put people back to work, in short order and in meaningful numbers, would remain undecided. Considering the nature of the downturn, it's probably quixotic to think anyone could do that. But it's not unreasonable for independent voters to hold out that hope.

If you're truly undecided, weigh in with your reasons why in the comments section below!

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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