The bad economy won’t elect Mitt Romney

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Mitt Romney’s campaign is not “doomed,” but it is in is in deep trouble. As I’ve learned, some people don’t want to hear this — but ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Speaking truth to power, RedState’s Erick Erickson writes,

Contra Dick Morris, Mitt Romney is not winning this election.

… Having refused to get on the “campaign shake up” bandwagon when Rupert Mourdoch and Jack Welch were claiming a shake up needed to happen, count me in now. Like it or not, spin it or not, put your head in the sand or not, attack me as the messenger or not, the very simple truth is that Mitt Romney has failed to close any deal with the voters and his message is so muddled no voter really knows what they are getting. (Emphasis mine.)

There are many factors, but the most costly error might have been the mistaken notion that a bad economy would automatically make it impossible for Barack Obama to win. In other words, if the environment were right, Romney could win by default.

Most observers — not just Romney’s strategists — assumed Obama could not win if the unemployment rate remained above 8 percent. This was generally taken for granted. But the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein  has reluctantly come to believe this conventional wisdom was always wrong:

[M]y expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data, which suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction, as was true with unemployment in 1980 and 1992.

Overcoming this false premise is just one of the problems that must be faced. Romney isn’t a great candidate, and his campaign hasn’t set the world on fire. Having said that, he also faces some institutional problems that aren’t his fault. Liberal media bias exists, to be sure — but that is assumed. Other Republicans have successfully overcome this obstacle.

A bigger problem, I would argue, is that the Reagan era is finally over. Not only did the Gipper get a third term (Bush 41), but his shadow loomed for decades. Then George W. Bush seems to have ended it.

Republicans are still a damaged brand. This is not a surprise, but the severity of the damage may be greater than we thought — especially after the 2010 midterms. It is clearly taking longer than four years to repair.

As Ross Douthat explains,

Since Bush left office, conservatives have been willing to acknowledge his failures as a fiscal conservative and to promise more responsibility on deficits and debt. This has been a necessary and important shift, responsible both for the energy of the Tea Party in the 2010 midterm elections and for the current Republican ticket’s (relatively) brave proposals on entitlement reform.

But the shift toward fiscal rectitude is the easy part, in a sense, because it just involved calling conservatives back to their principles, without necessarily acknowledging the places where ideology might need to adapt itself to new realities. It’s made the Republicans more serious than they were in January of 2008, but it’s left the party’s post-Bush weaknesses on the economy and foreign policy conspicuously unaddressed.

A presidential nominee could have filled this breach with fresh rhetoric and creative policy, but Romney, compromised and uncourageous, hasn’t been the right man for that job. On economics, he’s shifted awkwardly between a message that focuses (sensibly) on the struggles of the middle and working classes and a much more conventional right-wing celebration of entrepreneurs and “job creators.” On national security, he’s campaigned as a by-the-numbers hawk, with barely a hint that hawkishness might have delivered America into difficulties during the last Republican administration.

With unemployment still over 8 percent, he may be able to win with this kind of uncreative message. But the economy is stagnant, not collapsing, which means he’s not going to win a big majority just by showing up.

It’s too soon to concede anything, but it may turn out that the GOP isn’t through wandering in the desert. They may not make it back in the promised land until the Bush generation of leaders exits the political scene in favor of a Joshua generation (also known as the strong GOP bench).

*UPDATE: Greg Sargent weighs in.

Matt K. Lewis