Friday, December 30, 2011

Romney’s newest challenges:
The man from Pennsylvania, and the economy

Whoever delivers pizzas to the offices of the seven remaining Republican contenders for the presidency (one in particular) has probably done brisk late-night business over the last few days. Never mind the candidate zoo barnstorming the state of Iowa, in advance of Tuesday’s caucuses, the first canvass of the 2012 presidential year. What’s keeping the candidates up nights, at least a little, has nothing to do with plotting strategies against each other and everything to do with adjusting to the rise of a previously unseen enemy: an improving national economy.

Much of the prevailing Republican electoral strategy, the stuff of a working guidebook for the GOP in its unsavory obsession to regain the White House, is based on the basic principle that the national economy would not improve markedly before Election Day 2012.

That belief, which every candidate has a variation of, has had its supporters on Capitol Hill, notably the Republicans in the House of Representatives, who’ve stymied as many Democratically-advanced efforts at consumer, state and infrastructure relief as possible over the last three years.

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But the ones right now making the most of that Republican pseudo-meme are the GOP candidates seeking the presidency. And none of them has adopted that idea as campaign doctrine as much as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He Who Hath Lived His Life in the Private Sector has accused President Obama of financial ineptitude, and insisted that his own experience in business puts him to best heal the economy.

Romney’s therefore set himself against not just the Obama White House and its policies and initiatives, but also an evolving series of events and forecasts that suggest at least some of those policies and initiatives are actually working in the economy he wants to fix:

ABC News reported Thursday that a consensus of economic forecasts projects that, on average, 177,000 new jobs will be created each month for the next 12 months — an expected total of about 2.1 million new jobs.

A survey of economists sponsored by The Associated Press forecasts that job creation will increase by 33 percent in 2012.

“The economy is slowly growing, coming out of the doldrums we’ve been in,” said John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, to ABC News.

An Associated Press/GfK survey finds that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic about the country’s prospects in 2012; some 78 percent expressed feelings of being personally hopeful about the coming year.

And most tellingly, the AP reports that new unemployment applications are down 10 percent since last January.

All this taking place, mind you, before we even know who the Republican nominee will be.

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From the perspective of life in Iowa, things couldn’t be better. Tom Vilsack can testify to that. Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and current Secretary of Agriculture viewed the improving economy through an agriculturalist’s lens in an assessment for MSNBC’s Ed Schultz on Thursday:

Citing a broad range of statewide upticks in orders for machinery; record exports; increased farm business and an unemployment rate falling faster than the national average, Vilsack was more than a little upbeat.

“There should be a strong ag economy in 2012,” he said. “[A]s agriculture goes, certainly in Iowa, so goes the economy generally. Things are beginning to develop, and people are optimistic about 2012.”

“Optimistic” without “cautiously” attached. Imagine that.

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And all that becomes a problem for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has built his campaign on the planks of fiscal experience. Lately, though, there’s been a gathering body of Romney detractors, other financial insiders prepared to say that Romney’s financial and corporate acumen came at a price — one paid by workers, the same kind of everyday people digging out of the recession right now.

One of their number, William Cohan, a former Wall Street banker and author of “House of Cards: Money and Power,” said Bain Capital, Romney’s former company, “like private-equity firms all over this city and country, [has] been in the business of buying companies, loading them up with debt, trying to pay down the debt by stripping assets, laying off employees, generating as much cash as possible ... and creating equity value where there once was debt, and getting themselves extremely wealthy.

“He’s not the wealthiest private-equity guy by any stretch of the imagination, but of course he’s very wealthy,” Cohan told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir on Dec. 15. “In fact that wealth is financing his campaign, in large part.”

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It could be a tough sell to convince the people of Iowa, or any other state, to vote for someone whose own proven financial self-interests and ruthless business history are fundamentally at odds with ordinary people like them. It could be a harder sell to convince them to vote to replace a president because the economy’s failing when the economy isn’t failing.

If the national economy manages to continue its upward climb until, say, Super Tuesday (in March), the prime rationale for Romney’s candidacy — I can fix the economy because I’ve done this kind of thing before — frankly runs the risk of becoming unnecessary, and maybe even irrelevant. The foundation of the Romney campaign mansion starts to crack; and the candidate that Republicans already resigned themselves to voting for with nostrils pinched shut becomes, gradually but steadily, less than inevitable.

That’s partly because of the current Romney campaign obsession with former House Speaker — the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex whose campaign is widely seen to be floundering — and Romney’s relative indifference to the candidate he ought to be worried about, the one apparently consistent social conservative whose polling numbers have increased 11 points in the last month, the one lately gaining ground and serious consideration: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

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Romney is apparently convinced that Gingrich has enough organization and money to be a serious contender in South Carolina and Florida, two of the next three primary states. Romney 2012 recently dropped more than $3 million in Iowa ad buys, more than other candidates’ anti-Newt spends combined.

More or less dovetailing with this spending has been the fact that Gingrich’s polling favorables have seriously declined. By double digits, in some polls. That could be a chicken-egg thing: which came first, Newt’s drop in the polls or Romney’s ads driving Newt’s drop in the polls?

Whichever it is, Romney’s mad focus on Gingrich and his overlooking Santorum may be a huge strategic blunder. Santorum has been surging in a thoroughly organic, county-by-county way, while Newt’s favorables have fallen like a rock off a table top.

For Romney to put so much energy into defeating a campaign that’s in the slow-motion process of defeating itself is a waste and misdirection of time, resources and candidate focus. For all his deficits in the calculus of traditional retail American politics — money, staff, offices, ad budgets, PAC clout — Santorum should be regarded, in some important ways, as Romney’s biggest threat. What he lacks in ground game, Santorum has more than compensated for in face time.

“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill said, and you can’t get more local than canvassing every county in the state, one at a time.

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When both of these factors are brought to bear, the voters in some of the early primaries may be the beneficiaries of a happy accident:

The idea’s been advanced, only half-facetiously, that GOP regulars don’t want Romney to run for the White House almost as much as they don’t want Obama in the White House.

Since they don’t want Romney, and the basic economic-related reasons to vote for him diminish with an improving economy, Iowa voters — and presumably those in South Carolina and Florida — may be in a position as problematic for Romney as it could be beneficial for Santorum: freed of a party obligation to vote for someone they don’t like and whose financial rescue plans they don’t need; liberated to vote their principles, rather than their expectations.

Rick Santorum, come on down.

Image credits: Romney and Santorum: Fox News. Poll piechart snapshots: © 2011 GfK Roper/The Associated Press.

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