GM is reporting record profits. Jobs numbers are looking up. Suddenly President Obama looks like an incumbent frontrunner again. So what do Republicans who have been planning to run on a dismal economy do now?
Well, there are a lot of suggestions but no consensus.
For Republicans looking to win over independents, one has to be careful not to sound bummed about objectively good news. But you don’t want to give the White House credit for it either, so instead the plan is to play backseat driver and brag that the GOP would have gotten there way faster. Let’s call this the Mitt Romney Approach.
On Thursday, Romney told voters that “thank heavens” the economy is getting better and Detroit is back on its feet — but quickly added that, hey, they both would be more awesome now if everyone had listened to me.
House Republicans, who were caught off guard by surprisingly strong jobs numbers earlier this month, took a similar approach as Speaker John Boehner confirmed things were improving, but added that “we must do better.”
But there’s another idea gaining traction fast on the right as well: ditch the economy entirely and instead return to the 2004 God/guns/gays plan that re-elected President Bush. Since Rove-style national security demagoguery is pretty hard to use against Barack “Bin Laden Sleeps With The Fishes” Obama, that means social issues would likely become the dominant part of the campaign. Let’s call it the Santorum Approach.
“I suspect if I’m Mitt Romney, I’m getting a little nervous because maybe that jobs picture won’t look so bad in November,” Santorum said last month after the latest jobs report. “And then, what’s his pitch to all of you? ‘I’m the guy who can put you back to work.’ The president of the United States is more than a guy in the private sector who knows how to create jobs. You’ve got to be the commander in chief. You’ve got to look at bigger issues. You’ve got to look at what the role of a leader is in this country.”
Given that Republicans have been losing almost every fight this year over abortion, gay marriage, and contraception in the court of public opinion, this may come across as a dangerous move. But it has at least one very powerful sympathizer in Rush Limbaugh (who, by the way, has no qualms about openly rooting for the economy to fail this year).
“Something tells me, that if the upcoming election could be decided on social issues, the Republicans could win that in a landslide, because we are on the right side of the culture war,” Limbaugh told listeners on Thursday. “The problem is, we’re scared to death of it. The Republican establishment wants no part of it.”
One issue that all sides can agree even if the economy keeps up its steady gains: the debt. As President Obama’s latest budget makes clear, even with improved tax revenue from higher GDP growth, the deficit is going to be eye-poppingly big for years to come.
Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist who advised President Bush, suggested to TPM that even though the unemployment rate will still be weak enough to benefit the GOP in even the most optimistic scenarios, the eventual nominee might benefit from shifting their emphasis more and more towards fiscal issues.
“There’s a question of how good it has to get before Obama gets the credit for it,” Blakeman said. “The real question is will the president have an Achilles Heel on the deficit….you have a whole side of the ledger the president can’t get credit for.”
Republicans have been going out of their way this week to highlight a pledge by Obama from 2009 to cut the deficit in half by this year. Expect to hear a lot more about that in a general election.
Another alternative option that Romney has been field testing lately is “crony capitalism,” a phrase that he’s using constantly in speeches, press releases, and op-eds. This argument goes, sure things may be improving, but the gains are going to Obama’s friends in labor, like the auto workers, and companies like Solyndra whose executives donated big dollars to his campaign.
Both of these options, the deficit and underhanded deals, are much tougher to run on than a lousy economy. Plenty of conservative commentators, most notably Michelle Malkin, have been making the “crony capitalism” case since Obama’s earliest days, for example, but it’s never gained much traction outside the base.
As for the deficit, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s historically acted as a placeholder for voters’ anxieties about the economy overall. Ronald Reagan ran up huge deficits in the 1980s to finance his tax cuts and defense increases, an issue that Democratic nominee Walter Mondale tried to run on in 1984. But once the economy began to turn around after peaking at double-digit unemployment rates, Reagan took credit and easily coasted to victory.
So the bottom line is that a growing economy is going to be hard to run against in any circumstances. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, summed up the overall dynamic pretty well with this quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign, in which he won while the economy — although improved — was still struggling through the Great Depression:
In the summer of 1933, a nice old gentleman wearing a silk hat fell off the end of a pier. He was unable to swim. A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard and pulled him out; but the silk hat floated off with the tide. After the old gentleman had been revived, he was effusive in his thanks. He praised his friend for saving his life. Today, three years later, the old gentleman is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.