Romney’s Closing, Obama’s Opening

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AUGUST 31, 2012

Romney’s Closing, Obama’s Opening

Mitt Romney on Thursday evening presented a politically effective argument: President Obama raised your hopes, only to dash them.

I don’t agree with that line of argument. Saving the country from economic catastrophe, laying the groundwork for a clean energy future, and making health care affordable for nearly all Americans represent a huge set of accomplishments—particularly given the obstacles, economic and political, that Obama faced from the day he took office. But with the unemployment rate still over 8 percent and the economy still growing too slowly, I’m sure Romney’s appeal will resonate with a lot of people.

But if you’re going to criticize the incumbent for the present state of the economy, you really should have a plausible plan for fixing it and doing so quickly. Romney doesn’t have one of those. And it showed in Thursday’s speech.

The first two-thirds of the speech played on emotion: Romney talked about America, his own life, and his (professed) disappointment that Obama didn’t succeed. Then he turned to policy—and devoted all of 200 words to his economic plan, at least by my count. I don't think the passage lasted more than three minutes. It certainly didn’t contain a lot of detail. It was, instead, a recitation of Romney’s five-point plan—a mix of nonsense proposals, like making North America energy independent, plus sweeping but unspecific promises to reduce the deficit, reduce taxes and reduce regulations.

Convention acceptance speeches don’t have to be wonky. Nominees use these speeches primarily to introduce themselves to the voters and to lay out the broad themes of what they hope will be their presidencies. But, in this case, the lack of specificity is of a piece with Romney’s whole campaign.

He has made broad promises, like vowing to cap non-defense spending at 16 percent of gross domestic product and promising to cut tax rates in ways that will be revenue-neutral. But he has refused to provide details on how he’d meet these goals, most likely because providing details would mean acknowledging the inevitable tradeoffs: That his spending cap would require drastic cuts to programs most Americans value, or that his tax plan would probably end up raising taxes for the middle class.

On Thursday evening, Romney vowed once again to create 12 million jobs in the next four years. That sounds like a big number. But, as several economists have pointed out, 12 million new jobs is what many models already predict the economy will produce.

A few months ago, Romney published a formal plan called “Believe in America.” And, at more than 180 pages in length, it certainly looks detailed, breaking down his agenda into 59 items rather than just five. But the proposals are mostly about familiar conservative ideas for boosting growth in the future. Whether or not those proposals are likely to work—I’m skeptical, as you might have guessed—they are unlikely to create many jobs in the next year or two. As I noted when I first wrote about that manifesto, even prominent conservatives like Josh Barro and David Frum agree that the plan doesn’t seem to address the immediate problem of slow growth and high unemployment. 

Here’s how Frum put it:

A President Romney would take office in January 2013, at a time when even on a best-case scenario more than 10 million Americans will still be unemployed or under-employed, more than half of them for a very long time. What to do for them? On this urgent topic, the plan falls dismayingly quiet. Even if Romney’s policies do raise the long-term growth rate of the United States beginning sometime about 2014, unemployment won’t return to normal levels until a Romney second term. That portends almost a decade of very high unemployment.

None of this may matter. The convention crowd seemed perfectly content to hear Romney bash Obama. The rest of America may come away thinking that Romney is a lot more likable than they imagined. In a close election, and with a weak economy, that may be more than enough for Romney to win.

But it’s also possible that Romney’s failure to put forward a real plan gives Obama an opportunity. He gets the last word next week, in Charlotte. And now he has an opportunity—to remind voters of the jobs he’s already saved and of the specific economic plan he has to create even more.

Sometimes voters want to hear more than a reassuring word. They want substance. And on Thursday, they didn’t get it from Romney.

follow me on Twitter @CitizenCohn

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, david frum, the plank

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