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.