Why the faltering economy won’t help Mitt Romney.

It was serendipitous: The day after Mitt Romney announced his presidential candidacy in a speech that focused heavily on claims that he’s the guy to turn around the economy, a jobs report came out that threw cold water on earlier optimistic sentiments about the prospects of the unemployed and of those threatened by depressed wages and unemployment. On the heels of lower growth estimates for the economy as a whole, this development creates a news context for the early phases of the 2012 election cycle that seems to be, as veteran Democratic pundit Mark Shields put it, “tailor-made for Romney.” And you can understand the argument. Romney has an extensive corporate background, looks the part of a CEO, and without question, he would prefer an issues environment focused on anything other than health care reform or the cultural issues on which he’s never inspired trust among conservatives.

If Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination, bad economic news will, of course, help him against Barack Obama, though that would be true of any GOP nominee. Perhaps it would help Romney even more, however, because his background makes him a plausible economic “pragmatist” who takes ideological oaths with a wink and crossed fingers. But will bad economic news help Romney win the Republican nomination? Don’t count on it.

While Romney’s business background endears him to pro-Republican business elites, it’s worth noting that such a personal history has rarely been a boon to Republican candidates in the past. Despite the GOP’s ancient pedigree as the party of business, being a successful corporate or entrepreneurial figure has never been treated as a prerequisite for a presidential nomination. With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, whose early adventures in the Texas oil industry were a less than prominent feature in his resume, there hasn’t been a Republican presidential nominee known mainly for his business experience since Wendell Willkie in 1940. Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000, and Mitt himself in 2008, are among the few major candidates who could even make business experience a major calling card, and both these men campaigned more as ideologues—True Conservative alternatives to more moderate front-runners—than as job creators. Moreover, Romney’s background as a corporate “turnaround” (often a euphemism for downsizing) consultant makes his resume a mixed blessing. He’s identified more commonly with the Wall Street, not the Main Street, segment of the American business community, and that’s a problem for him in both the GOP primaries and any hypothetical general election. 

Moreover, when you consider the state of contemporary conservative economic philosophy, it’s by no means clear that Republicans are looking for a highly competent, hands-on manager of the federal government’s economic development efforts. Indeed, the whole point of the current conservative push is to keep hands off the economy on the grounds that the federal government can’t make any meaningful positive contribution to economic growth, other than perhaps by opening trading relationships with other countries. And when it comes to reducing unemployment, most Republicans claim to believe that a Republican administration sworn to oppose tax increases and hell-bent on wholesale deregulation and major federal spending cuts will have an immediate positive effect on job growth, presumably by reassuring lenders and employers that uncertainty about future tax and regulatory trends is no longer warranted. Others, meanwhile, are candid in rejecting short-term economic trends—and particularly high unemployment—as top concerns, other than as the unfortunate price that some Americans must pay for past fiscal profligacy.

In this environment, it’s not clear what advantage Romney would have; his own economic message for 2012 is almost entirely negative, and it differs in no important respect from that of the other candidates. Indeed, Romney might even come off as lacking when compared to Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, who have been consistently more extreme in their demands that congressional Republicans threaten economic havoc if their desired spending cuts or entitlement reforms aren’t enacted. And it should be obvious, in a party that equates economic growth with limited government, that Romney’s huge problem—the Massachusetts health reform plan he championed and still defends—is by no means eliminated by an increased focus on the economy. Romney himself, in his presidential announcement speech, knelt before the altar of small government by saying: “We are only inches away from ceasing to be a free market economy.” ObamaCare, and its close relative, RomneyCare, is without a doubt the preeminent symbol to conservatives of that alleged lurch into socialism.

Finally, continued bad economic news could undermine Romney’s most important asset (aside from money) in the nomination contest: the possibility that early caucuses and primaries could create a fight between Romney and one or two opponents perceived as being “unelectable” against Barack Obama (e.g., Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, or Herman Cain). To put it bluntly, any development—including a struggling economy—that weakens Barack Obama’s standing going into 2012 also reduces the willingness of conservatives to accept a nominee they really don’t like in the name of electability. Romney will do best if Republicans think they must have him to win. In a worsening economy, it will be much easier for them to vote with their hearts, none of which belong to Mitt.    

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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