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Mitt Romney: No There There

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Returning to Oakland after a long absence, Gertrude Stein famously remarked, "there is no there there." During the first week of July, conservatives made a similar discovery about Mitt Romney: he's an empty suit. While Romney blames President Obama for America's economic malaise, the Republican presidential candidate doesn't understand what caused the recession and, therefore, has no recovery plan.

On July 5 the Wall Street Journal observed,

"The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault. We're on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that 'Obama isn't working.' Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better."

That same day, über-conservative William Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard,

"... voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy. He can "speak about" how bad the economy is all he wants -- though Americans are already well aware of the economy's problems -- but doesn't the content of what Romney has to say matter? What is his economic growth agenda? His deficit reform agenda? His health care reform agenda? His tax reform agenda? His replacement for Dodd-Frank? No need for any of that, I suppose the Romney campaign believes. Just need to keep on 'speaking about the economy.'"

What's wrong with Romney's campaign? Why is there no there there? It's probably due to an elemental Romney character fault. Although he comes from a privileged background, went to the best schools, and made an estimated quarter of a billion dollars as a job killer, Romney's bland and unimaginative. (A recent Selzer poll asked voters who they would rather sit next to on a long plane flight: 57 percent said Obama, 31 percent said Romney.) Perhaps it's the psychological consequence of flip-flopping on so many issues in order to appease the Republican poobahs. As a friend of mine observed, "If you have your spine removed there are bound to be cognitive consequences."

Nonetheless, Romney is part of a vast, well-funded Republican political operation and it's difficult to imagine that his campaign doesn't have the resources to conjure up an alternative economic plan. Perhaps Romney is saving it for his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30.

But there's a more likely explanation. For two years, Republicans have done everything they could to sabotage the U.S. economy, believing that would help them defeat Obama in 2012. (On October 27, 2010, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell famously said, "The single most important thing [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.") For the past twenty-one months Republicans have blocked all White House efforts to stimulate the economy.

The Republican "scorch the economy" policy has had psychological consequences. There's a famous sixties book "Been down so long it looks like up to me". It may be that Mitt Romney and Republicans are so used to going negative that they can't get their minds around a positive plan and are forced to fall back on conservative clichés such as "cut taxes" and "eliminate government." Remember that as a businessman Romney's forte was eliminating American jobs and shipping them overseas. (One of his most famous admissions was, "I like being able to fire people.")

But the simplest explanation for Romney's lack of vision is that what he plans to do, if elected president, would be a reprise of George W. Bush's economic policies. But Romney can't say this because most voters blame Bush for the stagnant economy. Moreover, even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges that Bush had the worst job-creation record of any modern president. During eight years, Bush created 3 million jobs. Obama claims to have created 4.4 million jobs -- there's controversy about this number but it's clear that Obama has created more jobs than Bush in half the time.

Mitt Romney has a major problem. He can't tout his own record as a job creator because there isn't one, he was a job killer. He can't tout the last Republican president's record because it was terrible. He can't tout recent Republican policies because they've all been negative -- sabotage the economy to make Obama look bad. So Romney will continue to spout vague generalities: he'll be a better president because he was a successful businessman; Obama doesn't get it; the solution is lower taxes for the rich and fewer governmental regulations; and on and on.

Republicans may grumble about Romney but in November they'll vote for him because they hate Obama. So the election outcome will come down to true Independents. Will they be taken in by Romney or will they realize, "There is no there there"? Stay tuned.

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