In a sane world, Mitt Romney would be laughed out of politics for the speech he gave celebrating his final wins (Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York) in the Republican nomination contest. The centerpiece of the address was a riff on the classic formulation, “Are you better of now than you were four years ago?”
Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?
What’s frustrating about this is the fact that it ignores the last four years of political history in an attempt to put Barack Obama at the center of the country’s economic troubles.
But that’s ridiculous. Here’s what we know about the last four years. In 2008, the economy fell into a deep recession. The proximate cause was the collapse of the global financial system, but the process itself was long in the making; George W. Bush was a terrible steward of the economy, and his policies—along with those of congressional Republicans—yielded a decade of slow growth and sluggish job creation. Along with an out-of-control financial sector, the end result of all of this was the worst recession in more than seven decades.
In response, the public ejected the Republican Party from power, and elected Barack Obama to the presidency by the highest margin of victory of any Democrat since Jimmy Carter. What’s more, he entered office with large majorities in Congress, giving him space to pursue solutions to the economy, along with his own projects.
By the time he reached office, however, two things had happened. First, the economy had gotten worse. Unemployment shot to new highs, growth reversed, and the United States entered economic freefall. The overwhelming priority for the incoming administration was to stabilize the economy and keep things from deteriorating into a second Great Depression.
The other thing was less remarked upon at the time, but no less important: Congressional Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, pledged to make Obama a one-term president by any means necessary. Their plan was to use legislative rules like the filibuster to create a supermajority requirement for everything from confirming nominees to passing new legislation. Far from harming Republicans—who would be unified in their opposition—the blowback would tarnish Obama, who would be blamed by the public for gridlock and obstruction.
Even without Republican support, Democrats managed to pass a stimulus, health-care reform, and financial reform, but each bill involved a tremendous amount of work, and left the party in poor shape with the public. Still, Republican obstruction was successful in reducing the size of the stimulus, stigmatizing health-care reform, and taking the teeth out of financial reform.
Worse, the sudden reversal of Republicans on the issue of fiscal stimulus—which they supported at both ends of the Bush administration—meant that the economy was stuck without further support, even as it stagnated with slow growth and high unemployment. Obama, as the president, received the lion's share of blame from the public. The only people who noticed Republican obstruction, by contrast, were assorted bloggers, journalists, and Washington insiders.
The rest of the story is straightforward. Republicans rode this discontent to the a massive victory in the House of Representatives—as well as big wins throughout the country—and used their newfound power to push austerity and a reactionary social agenda. In a series of terrible mistakes, Obama tried to negotiate with and accommodate Republicans, resulting in a string of political losses, and further damaged his credibility with the public. His administration flailed until it recognized the futility of trying to work with congressional Republicans.
There are two things to take away from this abridged version of the last three and a half years. The first is that Democrats, led by Obama, passed an impressive amount of big legislation, given the circumstances. Obama has had his fair share of problems—his actions, or lack thereof, on the federal reserve come to the forefront—but on the whole, his administration has accomplished more than most.
The second, and more important lesson, is that the economy could have been in much better shape had Republicans cooperated. That doesn’t mean acquiescence, but it does mean an attempt to find mutually beneficial solutions to the problems of slow growth and high unemployment.
In an ideal world, all of this would be a part of the political conversation in an election year. As the standard-bearer for the Republican Party, Mitt Romney would have to answer a few questions: Is it not true that Obama has spent his term cleaning up the wreckage of the last Republican president? Why shouldn’t we hold the GOP responsible for the gridlock of the past three years? How do you intend to fix the economy, if you are touting the same policies as your Republican predecessor?
Of course, none of this will be asked. As he did in this speech, Romney will be allowed to campaign as if the past never happened, and the Republican Party didn’t have a part in producing the current circumstances. His campaign will run on clichés, and angrily swat back at anyone who questions his refusal to acknowledge the people—his fellow Republicans—who created this mess in the first place.
If there’s anything we can take from Romney’s speech tonight, it’s that the general election will be fought in a vacuum, where the only person who can ever be blamed is Barack Obama.