Election 2012

Romney's Shanked Spike

Failure to put Obama away illustrates limits of policy-averse politics


It should not be this hard to defeat a floundering incumbent president.

Mitt Romney had exactly one extended good moment last night during the second 2012 presidential debate. Answering a question from a disappointed Obama voter, the Republican Party nominee gave a two-minute version of Clint Eastwood's memorable 13-word phrase: "When somebody does not do the job, we got to let them go":

We just can't afford four more years like the last four years.

He said that by now we'd have unemployment at 5.4 percent. The difference between where it is and 5.4 percent is 9 million Americans without work. I wasn't the one that said 5.4 percent. This was the president's plan. Didn't get there.

He said he would have by now put forward a plan to reform Medicare and Social Security, because he pointed out they're on the road to bankruptcy. He would reform them. He'd get that done. He hasn't even made a proposal on either one.

He said in his first year he'd put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenges. Didn't even file it.

This is a president who has not been able to do what he said he'd do. He said that he'd cut in half the deficit. He hasn't done that either. In fact, he doubled it. He said that by now middle-income families would have a reduction in their health insurance premiums by $2,500 a year. It's gone up by $2,500 a year. And if Obamacare is […] implemented fully, it'll be another $2,500 on top.

The middle class is getting crushed under the policies of a president who has not understood what it takes to get the economy working again. He keeps saying, "Look, I've created 5 million jobs." That's after losing 5 million jobs. […] [T]he number of people who are still looking for work is still 23 million Americans. There are more people in poverty, one out of six people in poverty.

How about food stamps? When he took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. Today, 47 million people are on food stamps. How about the growth of the economy? It's growing more slowly this year than last year, and more slowly last year than the year before.

The president wants to do well, I understand. But the policies he's put in place, from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank to his tax policies to his regulatory policies, these policies combined have not let this economy take off and grow like it could have.

You might say, "Well, you got an example of one that worked better?" Yeah, in the Reagan recession, where unemployment hit 10.8 percent, between that period—the end of that recession and the equivalent of time to today, Ronald Reagan's recovery created twice as many jobs as this president's recovery. Five million jobs doesn't even keep up with our population growth. And the only reason the unemployment rate seems a little lower today is because of all the people that have dropped out of the workforce.

The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked.

It was an effective indictment: sober, fluent, and grounded in what sounded like a different and coherent set of economic principles. Unfortunately, it was an outlier on all three counts.

Whereas Romney in the first presidential square-off was able to benefit from his steadfast, five-year refusal to detail any specifics about which big-ticket federal government programs or departments he would reduce or cut, that tactic backfired during Round 2. It's not just that President Barack Obama was able to argue plausibly that Romney's tax-plan numbers don't add up—they don't—but rather that across a series of topics, from foreign policy to domestic spending to international trade, the GOP standard-bearer was unwilling and maybe even unable to articulate a truly competing vision that would prune back government omnipotence.

So when Romney was asked by moderator Candy Crowley how he might "convince" Apple Computer to bring its manufacturing "back here" from China, he did not say that the president of the United States should not be in the business of browbeating individual companies over their plant-siting decisions, he did not retort that the premise of the question reflects a sick and dangerous view of executive power. Instead, Romney claimed (falsely) that "the answer is very straightforward," and depends on calling China a big fat cheater.

It was left to Obama, of all people, to sound like a comparative adult on the question: "Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs."

Romney was no better on the (very few) good questions last night, such as from a woman who wanted to know how his policies would be specifically different from those of George W. Bush. Instead of taking the opportunity to criticize the big-government spending spree during the Republican-dominated era of 2001-2008—which John McCain had no trouble critiquing in real time four years ago—Romney…regurgitated his five-point economic plan. This audio-animatronic response was all the more odd considering that each one of the five points (energy independence, balanced budgets, increased free trade, etc.) was something that George W. Bush actively campaigned on.

These debate hiccups were not just missed rhetorical opportunities. They were the logical progression of a candidate who has made a specialty out of vagueness, who—like many talented business consultants—tailors his message to flatter his audience without scaring them too much about uncertainties ahead.

When you steer clear of off-putting ideology and run screaming from even mildly painful specifics, what do you have left? Bland, tautological advertisements for competence.

"I know what it takes to get this economy going," Romney answered to the first questioner, a college student named Jeremy, who the GOP candidate would eventually (and shamelessly) promise to get a job. "I'm going to change that. I know what it takes to create good jobs again. I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve. It's not going to be like the last four years. The middle-class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce. I know what it takes to bring them back." Every time Romney brings up the Olympics, or waxes poetic about small businesses, the message is the same: I am managerial, I am competent, I am from the world that understands economic principles so well that you really don't need me to spell them out.

This approach may be maddening to those of us who take seriously the project of limiting the size and scope of government, but fairness compels an observation: It may well work. After all, Romney used this strategy to survive the minefields of the GOP nominating process, and get himself to a statistical tie three weeks before election day.

But the absence of a coherent alternative philosophy contributed to Romney's lowest point last night: His utter failure to make Obama squirm over the administration's constantly conflicting explanations of the botch-job in Benghazi. Instead of hammering at the substance of poor security planning, poorer public relations, and a foreign policy that blunders from intervention to intervention, Romney foundered on the style issue of Obama holding fundraisers the day after the attacks. "I think these […] actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance and perhaps even material significance," he said, getting the priorities backward. Then Romney changed the subject to the president's insufficient friendship with Israel, his insufficient hawkishness on Iran, and his alleged "apology tour" of the Middle East.

On Benghazi as well as the economy, President Obama's record is its own anti-Obama attack ad. An opponent confident in his own ideology would have put the incumbent away long ago, unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn't have even come this far. 

NEXT: Obama's Chances of Reelection Increase

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  1. This approach may be maddening to those of us who take seriously the project of limiting the size and scope of government, but fairness compels an observation: It may well work.

    You can’t scale back government if you don’t win first. Or if you’re either of these candidates.

  2. How many debate threads are you gonna dump on us before the LINKS?

  3. unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn’t have even come this far

    The degradation stopped for just a brief moment when Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination – and then continued apace when he named George Bush as his running mate.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 4 years ago if you had put a gun to my head and told me I had to vote for either McCain or Obama, I would have voted for Obama. Today, I would tell you to go ahead and pull the trigger.

    1. 4 years ago I voted for Obama.


  4. “unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn’t have even come this far.”

    Unless?? That’s a pretty far-fetched theory. Not.

  5. I said last night that Romney missed hitting a easy home run on the Benghazi question.

  6. Being intentionally vague just means that Romney studied Obama 2008 and learned the lessons well. Obama ran as the Rorschach candidate and reached a devoted audience of messianic proportions. With a president who’s policies (or lack thereof) have failed so completely, why would you stake out any firm ground? Just be “hope-we-can-change-it” guy and you win.

    Until the American people decide what they want to be when they grow up, this election strategy will continue to work.

  7. Fairly bizarre that Reason writers are (a) mocking Romney for having a difficult time beating a guy with a multi-billion-dollar warchest and the media completely in his pocket, and (b) suggesting that Romney adopt tactics that would make it even more difficult to beat BO.

    I mean seriously? Answering a question of how to get jobs back by saying it’s not the president’s job? I agree with the sentiment, but among the American electorate that’s going over like a fart in your temple underwear.

    1. The problem is that the lies and vague BS are easier to put in simple terms. The truth is harder to express in sound bites and when you come close, it seems inhumane to the undecideds who are worried about insignificant touchy feely crap. “how will I ever get the government to buy my kids school lunches if they won’t even create jobs!”

    2. For (a), they’re talking about easy points where telling the truth demolishes Obama’s positions. No dissembling necessary. Your insistence that their criticisms are bizarre is what’s bizarre.

      1. As Lisa notes, the truth is hard to fit into a debate format and even harder to explain to people who don’t want to hear it.

        1. That’s unfortunately true as well.

  8. I seem to recall that Romney did, in fact, criticize Bush’s big deficit spending.

    1. Shhh–the cocktail party circuit might hear

  9. An opponent confident in his own ideology would have put the incumbent away long ago, unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn’t have even come this far.

    DING DING DING DING. We have a winner!

  10. …there are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs.

    I realize the SLD requires me to say it’s not the preznits function to “create” jobs but, if one believes that it is, what about people who do not have and cannot get the high skills to do the high wage jobs? It’s all very well to want everyone in a highly paid job but it just ignores the fact that a substantial portion of the population is not capable of doing anything but menial labor.

    What becomes of those people when every job is “high wage, high skill”?

    Do we just abandon them to a life of dependence on government handouts?

    If it were up to me, I guess I would say, “Hey, why don’t we just free up the labor market so that anyone can try to get a job that fits their abilities and aspirations at a wage that is acceptable to them and their employer?”

    1. If highschools are graduating less than 80% of their students, we are going to need a lot of low skill, low wage jobs.

      1. Well, that’s just another thing.

        this whole thing with NCLB and the whole testing shit.

        Has it never occured to any of these shits that maybe some of these kids simply can’t handle the work.

        They’re not doing these kids any favors by assuming that every kid can be a straight A Latin Scholar and rocket scientist all rolled into one.

        Setting someone up for failure robs them of dignity far more than them having to subsist on the meagre income of a menial job ever will.

    2. In Jersey you have to get a license just to be a bartender. And you have to get a different one if you change bars.

      And that’s just a minor example of the obstacles gov’t puts in our way. I can’t imagine what it must be like to actually start and run a business.

      1. Someone brought this up on a HandR thread a few weeks ago.

        Whoever it was pointed out that more and more jobs, childcare or elderly caregivers etc were traditionally “women’s work” done at low pay.

        Now they have all these certification programs that anyone wanting to do these jobs have to go through (and pay for). But they are still shitty low paying jobs.

  11. “? he did not retort that the premise of the question reflects a sick and dangerous view of executive power.”
    Amen to that!

  12. Romney did miss several opportunities to aggressively attack Obama and his record. But he still did a decent job. His argument on the Libya scandal was seriously crippled by the partisan moderator who inaccurately interjected in Obama’s favor. He won the debates on the substantive issues while Obama resorted to personal attacks on Romney’s tax rates.

    I do wish that he would present a simple clear difference in philosophy – “Obama has consistently pushed big expanding government which crushes individual freedom and prosperity while bankrupting our children and grandchildren while I favor smaller government which restores freedom, prosperity and fiscal sanity. This choice is clear – bankruptcy and oppression or prosperity and freedom.”

    But if he does lose, it’s not because he didn’t provide a creditable alternative or “win the debates.” It’s because the American people, by and large, are incredibly stupid and nearly half will still vote to reelect a man who has proven to be both criminally unethical and a spectacular failure.

  13. Romney missed a golden opportunity when asked how he would be different from Bush. Should have pointed out how Obama took the things everyone hated about Bush and doubled down.

  14. CNN chose left-leaning whiny-bung questions. It was a fackin op. Even so, Rom shoulda shoed him in the rocks with Libya, the REAL unemployment rate, and his socialist dry shank of the banking/auto/health industries. BamBam is a marxbat right outta the commune. Shoulda hit him on his false claims supporting “free enterprise” made him chug a few ropes of capitalist gack and watch him retch back exploitation dogma. THE KING IS A FINK.

  15. I wish Romney would have hit back on Obama on one of the many occasions Obama said “in the past decade..”

    Um, you’ve been pres. for 40% of the last decade you Giant Douche.

  16. When your first Romney quote undermines the point of your article, perhaps continuing to write is a mistake.

    ‘Romney said things I think were wrong!’ Well, yes, you’re purportedly a Libertarian, Romney’s supposedly a Republican. You’re not going to agree on all points. Duh.

    See what I mean? There’s really no point to this.

  17. With all the kerfuffle about FoxConn lately, we’ve gotten a good look at iPhones and other tech being assembled. I dunno… I have trouble seeing that as a “low skill” job as the term is usually used. There’s news just today that Apple is having to work with the locals to get them up the iPhone 5 assembly learning curve faster because it’s a tricky build.

    And they both missed the big picture. You can’t just move a plant to the U.S. You have to move the entire supply chain. The reasons that it’s cheap to make things in China are much more numerous than mere lower wages. The assemblers, the component makers, the tool and die folks, even the rare earth resources are all located in relative proximity to one another.

  18. You might cut Romney a little slack and think about his audience. It’s the same audience that the POTUS speaks to which is one that doesn’t get into details but can focus clearly on the puff that comes from candidates. Obfuscation is always the word of the day for politicians.

  19. Maybe Romney should have mentioned the continued incarceration of the Copt filmmaker, on the heels of his public condemnation and scapegoating at the hands of this President. All for an exercise of free speech.

  20. It’s sad to say that Obama is the one promising to spend LESS. Neither will cut SS, medicare, subsidies, education, etc., but Romney will actually increase Offense spending dramatically. It really makes me wonder if we looked in Romney’s head all we’d see is a hamster running on a wheel.

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