Presidents who seek re-election in the midst of a sagging economy don’t usually win. The prime example is Herbert Hoover in 1932, but there is also Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992. So, with the current economy still in the doldrums, Mitt Romney should be poised to deny re-election to Barack Obama. But instead he seems poised for defeat.
The most talked-about reason is that Romney is a singularly unattractive candidate: Whatever his political views, he acts like the typical country club Republican. But another reason is the way Romney and his Republican supporters have framed the debate over the economy. They have focused inordinately on two issues that don’t really get at most voters’ worries about the economy: the plight of small business and the increase in the national debt.
Small business: Romney focused six weeks of his campaign on the (spurious) charge that Obama had suggested that small business owners didn’t build their businesses. “We built it” was the theme of the second day of the Republicans convention. In his speeches, Romney rarely talks about workers; if he wants to describe economic hardship, or to tout his own promise of economic revival, he talks about small business.
At a speech last week in Westerville, Ohio, Romney made this perspective explicit.
Romney promised tax relief not to individual workers, but to small business owners. “I’m going to champion small business. Small business, where jobs come from. And let me tell you how to do that. ... We’ve got to reform our tax system,” Romney said. But he warned the audience not to “be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I’m also going to lower deductions and exemptions. But by bringing rates down, we’ll be able to let small businesses keep more of their money, so they can hire more people.”
In their ads, the Republican super PACs have echoed Romney’s message. An ad by Karl Rove’s Crossroads USA consists entirely of small business owners criticizing the President. It opens with a women labeled “small business owner” declaring that “small businesses like ours are what have driven the country, and President Obama doesn’t understand that.”
This doesn’t seem to be an effective way to reach voters who are worried about the economy. Voters are worried about themselves and about their families. By appealing to small business owners, Romney and the Republicans are reaching a miniscule percentage of the total workforce and of the electorate. There are about six million employers in the United States--a group that includes small business owners. That means they make up at best about three percent of the workforce. In Virginia – where Crossroads was airing its small business ads repeatedly – managers, including small business owners, make up .898 percent of state employment.
Republicans might argue that by appealing to small business owners, they are also appealing to their employees, but that’s a tenuous connection to make, especially in a thirty second commercial. In this appeal, Romney and the Republicans seem to be in the grips of an older American ideology from a time when many Americans (and particularly farmers) were small business owners and when Americans who were not aspired to be. But 2012 is not 1832 or 1888.
The National Debt: At the Republican convention in Tampa, there were two huge digital clocks on display counting out the increase in the national debt. When Romney spoke in Westerville, and at other campaign rallies, a huge debt clock stood behind the podium. In his speech, Romney charged that Obama had increased the national debate to “over $16 trillion” and warned that if Obama were re-elected, “I can assure you it will be almost $20 trillion in debt.” And the super PACs have again followed Romney’s lead. A Crossroads ad on the economy begins, “Obama has added $4 billion in debt every day.”
Hardline Republican voters do seem to be worried about the national debt. It is also a popular issue among Tea Party members. But it doesn’t even show up in opinion polls. What does show up are budget deficits, and these too rank fairly low except among Republican voters. A Pew Research Center Poll released September 24 found that budget deficits ranked fifth in voters’ priorities after economy, jobs, health care and education. It was the top concern for Romney voters, but ranked eighth among Obama supporters. Among undecided voters, it ranked fifth. That makes it a poor choice for rallying support for Romney’s candidacy outside the already committed. Yet Romney and the Republicans continue to emphasize debt and deficits.
Here, too, they appear to be living in the past. For much of the twentieth century, Republicans did run on a promise to balance the budget by cutting spending. But Ronald Reagan changed all that. In 1976, Reagan challenged Gerald Ford on these grounds, and was defeated for the nomination. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan fell under the spell of supply-side economics, which was a politics as well as an economics. It focused Republicans on increasing economic growth by cutting taxes. It ignored budget deficits and spending cuts aimed at social security or other popular programs.
Reagan and the supply-siders understood that while opinion-makers regularly decried budget deficits, and while voters, if pressed, would say they don’t like them, they didn’t actually look for candidates who promised to cut the deficit; they looked for candidates who promised jobs and growth and a higher standard of living. In May 1980, the late Jude Wanniski, who helped formulate the strategy, put it this way: “In 1976, Reagan got into difficulties with his $90-billion spending cut plan … Now he understands there is a way to move the economy to a higher level of efficiency and productivity without first throwing the widows and orphans out into the snow.”
In 1984, Walter Mondale adopted the older Republican script and ran a campaign promising to cut the deficit by raising taxes. He lost in a landslide. George H.W. Bush in 1988 ran a supply-side campaign (“Read my lips – no new taxes.”) And in 1992, a victorious Bill Clinton ignored deficits until he was actually in office. Romney seems to be running an older Republican campaign – or if you like, a Republican version of Mondale’s disastrous 1984 campaign. He seems to have learned nothing from the last forty years of political history.