It's conventional wisdom that Democrats would have an easier time defeating Mitt Romney than John McCain. Among the reasons: Romney is a transparent panderer, doesn't excite evangelicals, can't claim more experience on national security, and is simply not that likeable a figure. Most of the time, I think that's right.
But yesterday, as I watched Romney on "Fox News Sunday," I had one of these fleeting moments when I began to wonder whether Romney wasn't a better candidate than McCain. It wasn't because he changed any of the above conditions. It was because he could speak credibly on the economy, in the sense that he was comfortable with the policy issues and was presenting a coherent narrative about his candidacy.
The narrative, of course, is all about his experience in the private sector. It goes like this:
I know how to do that and get Washington back on track. This is fundamentally, I believe, an election about changing Washington, about doing to Washington what has to be done to get America back on track so that we can regrow our economy.
And I'll tell you one thing, Chris, the only way you're going to have somebody who understands how to rebuild an economy is to have somebody who's been in the economy, who knows what it's like to see jobs come and go, who's fought to try and build businesses and build jobs.
We're competing around the world now with China and India, tougher competition than we've ever faced before.
It's going to be helpful to have a president who, when we're looking at agreements to work out with other countries on trade -- that knows what impact those agreements will have on American jobs, who knows, for instance, when there are tax incentives put in place, how it's going to change jobs in this country.
I am intimately familiar with how our economy works. I'm working very hard to make sure that the workers of this country have a brighter future. And I will never accept the idea that jobs are gone in America. I'm going to fight to bring back jobs and to grow this country.
Note the way Romney intertwines two powerful messages here -- that he's an outsider and that he understands business. This is a much better sales pitch than what we get from McCain, who -- for all of his genuinely appealing characteristics -- just doesn't have much to say on economics. Back when the two were campaigning in Michigan, I noted that this difference was the reason Romney bested McCain in that contest. But if the economy continues to slide, I don't see why the same won't be true in other states -- and why it wouldn't be true in the general, as well. McCain's inability to speak about the economy could be a fatal flaw come November.
Again, I'm not saying McCain is likely to be the weaker candidate -- just that he could be, for some of the same reasons he may not win the Republican nomination in the first place. As always, "electability" is very difficult to predict -- which is why I think voters are better off voting on leadership qualities and policy positions.
Having said all that, the ability to "sound credible" on the economy isn't the same as the ability to "persuade voters" on the economy. And my suspicion is that Democrats would ultimately win that fight, simply because they have better arguments. You can start with the shape of an economic stimulus. Unlike Democratic proposals, which would target their assistance at lower- and middle-income Americans, Romney's tax breaks would not reach the tens of millions of Americans who pay no income taxes. As many experts have noted, not only does that stiff the people who presumably need the most help -- it's also foolish economically, since those people are most likely to spend the money and thus boost the economy.
On the other hand, Romney's proposed stimulus is $250 billion -- twice as large as anything the Democratic presidential candidates have put forward. So he could credibly argue it would give an even bigger boost to the economy, assuming he doesn't plan to offset it immediately with additional spending cuts. He seemed to indicate as much when he told John Harwood of the New York Times that “If we go into recession, the cost to our balanced budget is going to be far more severe than the cost of this program.”
Then again, that figure includes permanent income tax reductions, which are not such a hot idea. My understanding is that the buzzwords for a good stimulus package are "targetted" and "temporary." Maybe somebody with a stronger economics background than I wishes to weigh in at this point -- Mr. Krugman? Mr. Baker? Mr. Cowen? (I thought a little ideological diversity would be nice.) I am quickly approaching the limits of my expertise, assuming I have not exceeded it already.