Sorry, it's not Romney's fault

Conservatives who point their fingers at him now should think of how they've behaved for the last four years

Published September 28, 2012 12:30PM (EDT)

The election is just over a month away, and only now is a leading conservative publication stepping forward to tell Mitt Romney that the premise on which he’s built his entire presidential campaign is wrong.

The Romney campaign’s assumption has been that economic anxiety will have swing voters in a firing mood in November, and that their desire to punish Barack Obama will push them into the GOP nominee’s column. But as a National Review editorial that went up last night points out:

What Romney has not done is address the major problem he has in making the case: the shadow of the George W. Bush years. Americans are more likely to blame Bush for the financial crisis that started on his watch than to blame Obama for the slow recovery from it. And even before the financial crisis, the last period of Republican governance was not especially good for America’s middle class.

It’s a valid assessment. Plenty of evidence is now available that Obama is benefiting politically from the public’s memory of the 2008 meltdown that played out on Bush’s watch, with voters willing to weigh current economic conditions against the catastrophe that was in full swing as Obama took office.

Perhaps the single most effective line at the Democratic convention earlier this month was Bill Clinton’s statement that “no president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” As Greg Sargent has been showing, since Charlotte Obama’s job approval rating has climbed to around 50 percent and he’s moved ahead of Romney on the question of who will handle the economy better. It’s become clear that Romney’s basic strategy – a simple, relentless recitation of discouraging economic statistics (many of them misleadingly crafted) – will not by itself lift him to victory.

Where the National Review is wrong, though, is in blaming Romney for this. Sure, he’s at least partly responsible, and as a Politico piece this morning reminds us, he’s hardly been a flawless candidate. But there’s a much bigger problem here, one with which conservatives haven’t been interested in grappling: the Republican Party itself has never really dealt with Bush’s shadow.

When Obama was elected four years ago, the right freaked out. This tends to happen whenever a Democrat wins the White House. Even before he took office, conservatives settled on a caricature of Obama as a radical collectivist hell-bent on nationalizing the economy. To explain how such a man could win the presidency, they told themselves that Bush’s main flaw was a lack of ideological purity: If only he’d been more conservative – much, much more conservative – he wouldn’t have given the right’s worldview a bad name and left the easily swayed masses susceptible to Obama’s charms.

This, obviously, was a total misreading both of who Obama is and what he represents politically and why voters had soured on Bush and the GOP. But in the short-term, there was no political price for the GOP to pay. They settled on a strategy of unanimous obstruction, even if it meant opposing policy ideas they had once championed, and began using primary elections to send a clear message to Republican officeholders: Whatever you do, just don’t compromise with the Democrats, ever. The immediate results only encouraged this behavior: a nonexistent presidential honeymoon for Obama, low public support for the president’s major agenda items, and a 2010 election landslide for the GOP.

In all of this time, the party never actually bothered to create a comprehensive post-Bush blueprint. The entire strategy amounted to railing against a straw man president and benefiting politically from the country’s economic anxiety as unemployment pushed into double-digits. Things changed a bit when Republicans took over the House in 2011; with their majority, they were finally forced to advance legislation on their own. But this basically meant manufacturing destructive showdowns with Obama and passing politically toxic Medicare and budget plans that were guaranteed to die in the Senate but that would mollify the GOP base and protect GOP House members from primary challenges.

This is the party that Mitt Romney is representing in the general election. And since it failed to produce a thorough set of politically marketable policy prescriptions during Obama’s first term, Romney has had two choices as the GOP’s standard-bearer: He can run on the House’s far-right agenda, which is a product of conservatives’ mistaken conviction that Bush failed because he wasn’t enough of an ideologue; or, recognizing how politically poisonous the House GOP’s vision is with general election voters, he can try to steer clear of it and hope voters are just blindly angry at Obama, like they were in ’10.

Romney has mostly chosen the second option, and while the evidence is mounting that it’s not working, you can hardly blame him for trying. The alternative is much worse.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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