09/16/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

Apparently This Time It's About More Than Just the Economy

Republican pundits are beside themselves. Mitt Romney's core election strategy has been built around the observation that no incumbent since Roosevelt has been reelected when the unemployment rate is over 8%. The parallels are drawn to the Reagan-Carter campaign, and the presumption has been that if the election can be framed as a referendum on the economy -- and more specifically Obama's handling of the economy -- then Romney must win.

Week after week, the headlines speak to continued economic stagnation, and the news of the past week has been particularly grave. First there was the jobs report that showed continued shrinking of the labor force, as almost four times as many people stopped looking for work as found jobs. Then there was the Census Bureau report this week on income and poverty in the United States that showed growing poverty and continuing deterioration in middle class incomes. And finally, as if to put a fine point on the fact that our crisis is not abating, the Federal Reserve Bank launched a new round of quantitative easing -- Fed-speak for radical measures to further reduce long-term interest rates toward zero -- in the hope that lower rates will inflate stocks and other asset prices, and ultimately stimulate economic activity by boosting investor and consumer confidence.

How is it, then, Republican pundits are asking, that Mitt Romney can lose ground in his campaign bid even as the economic news gets worse? George Will voiced Republican anxieties last Sunday following the Democrat convention and the ensuing negative jobs report when he suggested that "If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business." And in the days since Will voiced his concern, Romney has seen his the odds on his winning the White House decline from 43% to 33% on Intrade.

Part of Romney's problem may be that while there is a case to be made against Obama on the management of the economy, Romney has not made it. For example, while Romney has advocated for tax simplification, he has not explained why a flatter tax rate with fewer deductions would be more efficient and promote greater economic growth. Similarly, Romney has argued for tax cuts in lieu of government spending as a means of stimulating the economy, but has failed to explain why tax cuts in an environment of deeply depressed private sector demand would have led to a better outcome. Instead, Romney has continued to place the focus on Obama's performance, in the hope of an up or down vote on that record.

In their seminal book, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff provide extensive data on the recovery time from financial crises with similar attributes to the 2008 collapse. They describe the patterns of events and the rationale for policy responses in detail, and their data suggests that the 2008 collapse is far from unique. Among other things their data on modern financial crises indicates that on average unemployment continues to increase for five years after the original collapse, housing values decline for six years and fall by 35.5%, that national debt nearly doubles in three years, and the restoration of employment and economic growth to pre-crisis levels takes seven to ten years.

Against that backdrop, the electorate seems to be placing the burden on Romney to articulate what his economic policies actually would be and why they would lead to a materially different outcome than the course we are now on. The Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week painted a picture of a country divided nearly 50-50 on almost every question, but one response that stood out: 63% of those polled believed that Romney has not provided enough details on policies he would pursue as President. This suggested that the strategy of simply being the anti-Obama candidate might not be not enough, people want to know what a Romney presidency would look like.

This week, barely a week after the Democrats left Charlotte, the ground under the presidential campaign shifted dramatically. As bad as the economic news was, it has been overwhelmed by the killing of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya, and the ensuing turmoil across the Muslim world as outrage over a YouTube video exploded from Tunisia to Indonesia. Ironically, there was little discussion of foreign policy in the recent political conventions, and there has been remarkably little debate -- among the candidates or their surrogates -- about U.S. options and policies across the extraordinary range of global issues that have made headlines just this week: U.S. relations with the evolving "democracies" in the Arab world. Our relationship with Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. The emerging Sunni-Shia war in Syria. The strategic interests of Russia and China in the Middle East and South Asia. Pakistan. Afghanistan. The looming disintegration of the European common currency.

Democrats and their allies in the media -- and no small number of Republicans -- jumped all over Mitt Romney for his hasty comments about events in Libya this week. It may well be that Obama's snarky comments in his convention speech about Romney's lack of experience in foreign policy got under his skin, and Romney's Libya comments may have been driven by the anti-Obama persona that he has taken on, but Romney's comments pointed to a larger issue that underscores many of the foreign policy issues noted above. The United States has spent more than a decade now with troops on the ground battling in Muslim lands, and we are now leaving. The decision by Iraq's Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow Iran to use Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to the Assad regime in Syria over our objections highlighted our waning influence in that region of the world where we have invested so much, as ancient loyalties and enmities increasingly trump the willingness of local leaders and allies to accede to our demands.

We have seen the YouTube incident before -- The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, and other episodes -- where Western freedom to insult violates Koranic precepts. And as in those earlier cases, much of the clashes this week seemed highly orchestrated. The protests were launched on September 11th, protestors arrived with al Qaeda flags in hand, and some remembered to bring their RPGs. It is hard to imagine that a search of the 120 million videos on YouTube would not yield other comparably offensive material, but this one was chosen by someone to achieve their own political objectives. This was not a random event.

But the larger question is what one is to do about it. While John McCain made the case that the turmoil was exacerbated by our scaling down of our presence in the region, he did not go so far as to advocate for expanding our presence on the ground. It is also notable that while some Romney partisans rushed to make the case that this was one more Obama failure, Romney advisor and George W. Bush CIA chief Michael Hayden offered a more measured assessment: "I wouldn't call it a failed policy at all. We shouldn't presume that we can control events in this part of the world."

While the United States has been the apparent target of Muslim protests, these protests are as much a challenge by Salafist Islamists to the new, relatively moderate elected regimes, no doubt with al Qaeda support if not orchestration. Accordingly, the actions by those governments to quell protests and defend our embassies are as much about defending their nascent democracies as about defending us, that is to say it was not about our values, it was about their politics. And if that is the case, we should see in that turmoil a triumph of sorts, it is a sign of people owning their own future.

These protests are evidence of an instability growing out of our withdrawal from the region, but rather are an outgrowth of political change that our presence engendered. The irony of Romney's remarks is that these protests can be seen as a triumph of the Neoconservative policies in the region and the determination to topple Saddam Hussein. The goal of that policy was to create one democracy in the region, and in doing so to whet the appetite of others for similar change.

In that regard, despite Romney's urge to decry the protests as the evidence of policy failure, he should instead laud them as evidence of policy success, and recall Paul Wolfowitz comments in his 2003 interview in Vanity Fair. "There is no question that there's a lot of instability that comes with democracy and it's the nature of the beast that it's turbulent and uncertain."

The Muslim protests offered Romney a chance to claim a singular Republican triumph, but driven by his anti-Obama imperative he has lost the ability to step back and look at the larger picture. Much as Democrats would deny it, the sweep of history in the Arab world is on a positive trajectory. This week, we watched the elected Egyptian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood quell protestors at our embassy and denounce the efforts of al Qaeda and others to undermine democratic change. That is a triumph.

Perhaps if the election were a referendum on the economy, Obama would lose, perhaps not. But in focusing on the Carter-Reagan contest, Republicans strategists seem to have lost sight of the enormous impact of the Iranian hostage crisis on that election. It may be that the unemployment rate does not tell the whole story, and that Americans understand that we are in the middle of a long recovery. In the same vein, it may be that all riots in Muslim cities are not the same. Sometimes they are evidence of policy failure, and sometimes they might be indicators of change, even success.

In either event, perhaps George Will should give voters more credit, and the cause of Mitt Romney's failure to gain ground is a strategy that is built around saying as little as possible and hoping that will suffice. But as Paul Wolfowitz suggested, this is a world of turbulence and uncertainty, and it just may be that voters are interested in seeing whether a future president can manage that complexity with subtlety, and whether he has more to say than just I'm not the other guy.