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My Day in Mitt Romney’s Book Club

Like any Woody Allen fan, I’ve been waiting my entire adult life to re-enact the Marshall McLuhan scene from “Annie Hall.”   

Today, Mitt Romney and Jonathan Chait finally gave me the excuse I needed. 

Here’s the backstory: On Friday, Romney told a crowd in New Hampshire that he was reading my recent book on Obama and the economy. The book’s take-away, according to Romney, is that Obama deliberately slowed the recovery to focus on health care reform. “In this book, they point out that they said the American people will forget how long the recovery took,” Romney said. “So that means they went into this knowing that when they passed Obamacare, it was going to make life harder for the American people.”

This morning, Chait wrote that this was, er, a slight misreading of the relevant passage in the book, which revolves around this Larry Summers quote:

“I always admired the president’s courage for recognizing that 50 years from now, people would remember that all Americans had health care,” Larry Summers later said in an interview. “And even if pursuing health care affected the pace of the recovery, which was unlikely in my view, people wouldn’t remember how fast the recovery from this recession was.”

As Chait points out, Summers wasn’t saying he or his colleagues believed something about health care reform itself would slow down the recovery. Summers was responding to criticism that the focus on health care had cost the administration time and political capital, which might have been better spent boosting the economy. Going back to the recording, I see that my specific question was: “As a practical matter, what was the fallout from health care broadly on economic policy? Were there things you could have done that health care kind of set you off of?” It’s pretty clear from Summers’s full response—which I can't share because parts were off the record—that Summers understood me to be making an opportunity-cost type argument. 

Having said that, I can't give Romney the full “you know nothing of my work” treatment. While he’s definitely misrepresenting Summers and the administration, there’s a kernel of truth to his interpretation of my book. I argue that Obama really was more focused on long-term, historically significant accomplishments than marginal, near-term differences in the pace of the recovery. On some level, Obama was prepared to accept (and I’m making up these numbers for argument’s sake) three years of painfully high unemployment with health care reform rather than 30 months of painfully high unemployment without it. And the reason is the one Summers alluded to (before disputing): Health care was simply more historically important than avoiding those extra six months of pain. 

Now, I happen to think this was a reasonable tradeoff—the logic being along the lines Summers lays out—even if I might have made a different call. But it was a trade-off nonetheless (even if the White House rejects this). And for the average voter who’s upset that unemployment has been so high for so long, it’s something they need to consider when evaluating Obama’s record. 

A final point: Even if you agree with all that, it’s worth noting that Romney and I have radically different prescriptions for how Obama might have spent his time had he bagged on health care. I argue that Obama should have focused monomaniacally on getting more stimulus; Romney argues that the stimulus was at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive. If he were really endorsing my book—and, hey, I’m all for it!—then that would be big news, since it would mean his views on stimulus have shifted dramatically since last week

P.S. My former TNR colleague Matt O’Brien was first out of the gate with the “Annie Hall” allusion.

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber