Can Mitt Happen?


Word on the street is that Gov. Mitt Romney is the favorite to fill out the GOP's presidential ticket. The American Spectator's Philip Klein says "shut the hell up, street." The key argument Klein makes is that the "Romney gives McCain economic cred" sales job (put forth by Karl Rove, among others) is baseless.

Romney was able to turn economic jitters to his advantage in the Michigan primary (after pledging $20 billion in subsidies for the auto industry), but he wasn't able to gain much traction on the issue elsewhere. In Florida, for instance, despite targeted messaging emphasizing his business credentials, Romney lost to McCain among voters who considered the economy the most important issue, 40 percent to 32 percent.

A deeper look at his performance in the primaries shows that Romney's appeal was stronger among higher-income voters than it was among the type of working class voters who will determine the election. Also, Romney consistently did substantially worse among those who thought the economy was "not good or poor" than he did among people who thought it was "excellent or good." In an electoral environment in which Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the state of the economy, this would be trouble.

Klein doesn't have a dog in this fight—his preferred candidate was some ex-New York City politician whose name escapes me. (He ran this year, right?) And he's right about the polls. But that's the worst reason to reject Romney as a VP candidate. Romney does have economic experience, and he does know more about economics than McCain. In some primary states, McCain was only beating Romney among those "economy" voters because they were voting for McCain anyway. That 8-point Florida lead on economics was matched by a 5-point McCain win. In California, which McCain won by about 8 points, Romney won "economy" voters by 13 points. The problem was that a bunch of people who thought Romney was better on the issue voted for McCain anyway.

Californians were right, by the way. McCain is a shambling mess on economics, whose answers on economic issues fall into four categories: 1) I was part of the Reagan revolution, 2) there's too much pork, 3) Phil Gramm and I are like *this* and 4) I served in Vietnam. I'm serious about that last one. Remember how he responded to this at the final GOP primary debate?

JANET HOOK: There's been a lot of discussion lately about the importance of leadership and management experience. What makes you more qualified than Mitt Romney, a successful CEO and businessman, to manage our economy?

MCCAIN: Because I know how to lead. I know how to lead. I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy. And I did it out of patriotism, not for profit. And I can hire lots of managers, but leadership is a quality that people look for. And I have the vision and the knowledge and the background to take on the transcendent issue of the 21st century, which is radical Islamic extremism.

I can't imagine a worse answer. OK, perhaps if McCain had thrust forward a copy of Das Kapital and said "this is what I'll do!" it would have been worse. But in about a minute he analogized economic management to the logistics of a peacetime Navy squadron and intimated that our problems would disappear if we ramped up the War on Terror just a bit. The cost of the war in Iraq? Decreased oil production? That had nothing to do with it.

So, polling-wise, it would be a mistake for McCain to pick Romney. But that doesn't mean it's fair. If only he'd been a Baptist, the sculpted flip-flopper would be the GOP nominee right now, and he would be making a credible economic argument.