Finally able to acknowledge what’s been plain for weeks, Mitt Romney seized the mantle of his party’s presumptive nominee after winning a series of primaries in the Northeast Tuesday night. Billed as one of his first major general election speeches, Romney pledged to combat government “unfairness” and challenge President Obama with a relentless focus on the economy.
“Tonight I can say, ‘Thank you, America,’” Romney told supporters in New Hampshire. “After 43 primaries and caucuses, many long days and more than a few long nights, I can say with confidence and gratitude that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility. And, together, we will win on Nov. 6.”
Romney warned that “because [Obama] has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions.”
“That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time,” he said. “But not here and not now. It’s still about the economy — and we’re not stupid.”
Romney outlined an agenda aimed at combating what he called “unfairness” in government, spinning a phrase often employed by Democrats as they make the case that wealthier Americans and corporations should pay higher taxes. Earlier Tuesday, Obama said the rich should “pay their fair share” in a speech to college students in North Carolina. While other Republicans often debate these arguments by emphasizing “opportunity,” Romney adopted the “fairness” language to criticize federal spending.
“This America is fundamentally fair,” he said. “We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”
Democrats have eagerly worked to portray Romney as an out-of-touch, ultra-wealthy son of privilege and Obama has noticeably gone out of his way to highlight his own humble roots in recent speeches (even if he never mentions Romney by name). Romney on Tuesday night co-opted that tack, describing his own biography as the son of a rags-to-riches father — former auto executive, governor and presidential candidate George Romney.
“I’ll tell you about how much I love this country, where someone like my dad, who grew up poor and never graduated from college, could pursue his dreams and work his way up to running a great car company,” Romney. “Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”
But we’re a long way from the 1910s, when the elder Romney grew up in Mexico and America. Romney didn’t shy from bringing up criticism of his own business career, where critics have alleged the candidate built his fortune by purchasing companies and laying off employees en masse.
“I’d say that you might have heard that I was successful in business,” Romney said. “And that rumor is true. But you might not have heard that I became successful by helping start a business that grew from 10 people to hundreds of people. ou might not have heard that our business helped start other businesses, like Staples and Sports Authority and a new steel mill and a learning center called Bright Horizons. And I’d tell you that not every business made it and there were good days and bad days, but every day was a lesson.”
The Obama campaign responded to his speech preemptively in a statement by spokeswoman Lis Smith.
“Mitt Romney has spent the last several months making dishonest attacks against the President’s record, so it’s no surprise that his speech tonight will be full of even more distortions,” Smith said. “Here is the truth: when the president took office, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month because of the failed Bush policies—policies that Mitt Romney would bring back if elected. Romney may hope that Americans overlook the fact that the President took office during a global economic crisis, but he can’t overlook the 4.1 million private sector jobs that have been created over the past 25 months, or the tax cut that President Obama gave to every working American, or the all-of-the-above energy strategy that has helped raise our domestic oil production to an eight-year high, reduce our dependence on foreign oil to a 16-year low, and double our renewable energy.”
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.