It Came from the 1%

03/20/2012 10:30 am EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

The more Mitt Romney grouses, the less presidential he seems, writes senior editor Igor Greenwald.

Let’s try a little thought experiment: Who would profit most if the US economy were to tank sometime over the next few months?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader? I’m sure he’d like nothing better than a great deal more pain for the Great Satan. Except that another global recession would surely send oil prices down in the dumps, threatening the ayatollahs’ hold on power much more meaningfully than any Israeli air strike.

Kim Jong-un, the chubby-cheeked dictator recently installed in North Korea? He probably harbors no affection for the US either. On the other hand, North Korea has recently agreed to nuclear inspections in exchange for US food aid, so perhaps Kim wouldn’t want to see the hand that (literally) feeds him bitten.

Which leaves one Willard Mitt Romney, Republican frontrunner by default, self-proclaimed economic heavyweight, and a man for whom the tepid recovery now underway looms as the biggest obstacle on the road to the White House.

Now, I’m not going to pull a Romney here and blame the ex-governor by association, just because his short-term rooting interest places him in unsavory company. While it’s his fault that he wants to be president, the fact that he probably won’t be one without a worse economy is ours. There are many perfectly good reasons to vote against Romney, but the state of an economy that neither he nor the incumbent controls isn’t one of them.

And so Mitt plods on like a latter-day Walter Mondale: damned as a carper if he keeps harping on the negatives, yet unable to articulate a positive vision that would make his candidacy more relevant than that of a generic Republican. In fact, a generic Republican would almost surely fare better without Romney’s all-too-obvious drawbacks.

It was only in December that Romney was accusing Obama of living in “Fantasyland” for taking credit for any recovery whatsoever. “It’s just astonishing they have the vice-president write an op-ed trying to describe how good things are,” he complained of Joe Biden.

A month later, Romney flip-flopped—or as those of us outside the Republican Party like to think of it, he responded to a change in the facts, acknowledging that a recovery was underway, but insisting that he’d manage it better.

Laura Ingraham: Isn’t it a hard argument to make if you’re saying, like, OK, he inherited this recession, he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now, we’re seeing more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn’t that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?

Mitt Romney: Have you got a better one, Laura? It just happens to be the truth.

But then January gave way to February, and Romney resumed his carping. "We need to have a recovery from this so-called recovery," he was telling voters in Michigan three weeks ago.

Except, oops, the job market kept on improving, so time for a different tack. Romney in Illinois on Sunday: “With the economy looking like it’s getting a little better on the employment front, gasoline’s getting a lot worse.”

And that’s supposed to be Obama’s fault, because he’s not as friendly to domestic drillers as Romney would be, and because he’s refused to approve the Keystone pipeline (which, as Jonathan Alter points out, would actually make US gas more expensive by shipping the current midcontinent glut of crude to Gulf coast refineries for processing into gasoline for Latin America.)

So, yes, Romney is outraged by Obama’s share of the blame for high gas prices—unlike three weeks ago, when Romney was telling CNBC that “I think people recognize that the president can’t precisely set the price at the pump.” Every time Mitt Romney, the economic heavyweight, opens his mouth, he seems to undermine Mitt Romney, the lightweight Republican candidate for president.

Yesterday, when Romney spoke at the University of Chicago, he was insisting again that the recovery was disappointing because of “the Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom.”

“Day by day, job-killing regulation by regulation, bureaucrat by bureaucrat, he’s crushing the dream and the dreamers,” the candidate warned.

I guess Romney plans to purge those bureaucrats en masse when he takes over, which will surely restore the dream to the state it was in when the previous White House occupant was packing. It’s just not clear that the electorate is ready to vote for that, even when the alternative is as unappealing as Obama.

So far, the Bush advisors running Romney’s economic policy have only managed to sign him up for the Bush tax cuts on steroids, to be paid for with unspecified cuts in social programs. In other words, they’ve failed to provide a platform around which Americans could rally.

Romney hasn’t said:

  • “I know market failure when I see it, and our health-care and higher education systems are prime examples of public subsidies exploited for private gain. We can do better, and I’m going to make sure that there is competition, choice and transparent pricing so that a dollar saved by an educated consumer can be a dollar earned, at last.”
  • “One easy solution to rising gas prices would be to convert many of the trucks on our highways to burning our ridiculously cheap domestically produced natural gas, and I will make sure that the incentives are in place to do just that, and to build out a viable network of natgas filling stations. Shame on the Obama administration for procrastinating so long on this no-brainer.”
  • “I hate corporate welfare just as much as the real thing, because just like the real thing, it’s financed by your taxes. So no more related-party deals in which intellectual property is acquired by foreign subsidiaries to reduce the parent company’s US tax bill.”
  • “Don’t vote for me because the economy is good, bad, or indifferent—no president controls the business cycle. Vote for me because I’ll be more of a problem solver than the other guy, and will more easily rise above the parochial interests of my supporters. To prove this, I will immediately stop vilifying the poor and government workers.”
  • “We need to restore the economic mobility and opportunity that used to define America, but now survive mostly in campaign slogans. And I’m the impartial manager we need to get this done. I’ve got mine, and will spend the next four years making sure you get yours.”

Romney hasn’t said any of this because he means none of it. And so tomorrow, it will be back to the tired shtick of warning how terrible things will get if he’s not elected. That’s one risk America may be willing to run.

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