Mitt Romney's Counterfactual Economic Argument

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He may still be slogging it out in the Republican primary, but he used a speech in Chicago to try to shape his general-election message.

Reuters

Mitt Romney hasn't yet made it out of the Republican primary, but in a speech on the economy at the University of Chicago Monday, he didn't mention Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Instead, Romney did his best impression of a Republican presidential nominee, contending that President Obama has sought to erode Americans' "economic freedom."


The speech didn't roll out any new policy proposals or open any broad new themes for Romney, but it offered a preview of how he'll approach his tricky general-election challenge -- arguing that the president is egregiously mishandling the economy even as, for the moment at least, the economy is improving.

Earlier in the day Monday, Romney acknowledged as much, telling a crowd in Springfield, Ill.: "I believe the economy is coming back, by the way. ... The problem is this [recession] has been deeper than it needed to be and a slower recovery than it should have been, by virtue of the policies of this president."

In the Chicago speech, Romney pointed to the "weak recovery" as "proof" that the current administration has squelched growth. "This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small," he said. "The truth is we're struggling because our government is too big."

Romney's speech had a highbrow cast, beginning as it did with a hoary anecdote about Milton Friedman, whom he referred to chummily by his first name. (The story: Watching workers on a government project in Asia building a canal with shovels, Friedman wondered why they didn't use machines; he was told it was a jobs program. "If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels," he supposedly said. Though Romney used the story to demonstrate that "government does not create prosperity," this is not necessarily an argument against government's ability to create jobs -- nor is it clear that Friedman is the true source of this well-worn economic anecdote.) 

Romney proceeded to cite the Harvard historian David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations -- a work that looks to explain the economic miracle of the development of Western Europe, a region whose oppressive socialism Romney routinely laments.

In this speech, though, Romney didn't use that particular bit of red meat, another potential sign he's moving on from the GOP base-baiting of the primary. He used Landes' theory that "culture" is the fundamental underpinning of economic success to argue that America's culture of economic freedom is what "drives our economic vitality." Those who would raise taxes or expand burdensome regulation, he said, threaten that fundamental freedom.

Taxes and regulation are bad -- a pretty boilerplate Republican notion, and Romney didn't go into too many specifics about his own plans. Instead, he related folksy anecdotes of suffering Americans: a guitar-amp-maker in St. Louis who claims the government skims 65 percent of his business's profits; a couple in Idaho who the EPA wouldn't allow to construct a home on their residential property.

Romney quoted from Obama's own words, citing his speech last week that Americans "are inventors, we are builders, we are makers of things, we are Thomas Edison, we are the Wright Brothers, we are Bill Gates, we are Steve Jobs."

Actually, Romney claimed, "the reality is that under President Obama's administration, these pioneers would have found it much, much more difficult, if not impossible, to innovate, invent and create." Regulators, he said, "would have shut down the Wright Brothers for their dust pollution," while "the government would have banned Thomas Edison's light bulb -- oh yeah, they just did." (In fact, legislation increasing light-bulb efficiency standards passed under George W. Bush and didn't ban incandescent bulbs.)

Curiously, Romney didn't mention gas prices, which many Republicans see as Obama's biggest economic vulnerability at the moment. He took three questions. To a query about his proposed tax cuts increasing the deficit, as independent analysts have claimed, he argued that he would make up the difference by cutting spending and increasing economic growth. To a question about urban poverty, he vowed to send federal welfare money to be administered by states and localities instead, then turned to education, which he vowed to fix in part by paying teachers more.

To a question about youth concerns, Romney got a bit flustered. "I don't see how a young American could vote for a Democrat. I apologize for being so offensive in saying that," he said, as if abashed by the way he just couldn't help being so partisan. Democrats, he said, are threatening future generations' prosperity by piling up debt and threatening the long-term sustainability of entitlement programs.

Not so long ago, it was Obama who was in the unenviable position of arguing a counterfactual: Sure, the economy is bad, but it could have been so much worse! Trust me! Now, it's Romney who is in that position: Sure, the economy is OK, but it could have been so much better! Either way, it's a tough argument to make.

For Romney, it's even tougher when you're still taking incoming from your own side. In advance of Tuesday's Illinois primary, Santorum was stepping up his attacks on Romney from the right. But as Romney continues his grim slog toward the nomination -- he declined to mention it, but his introducer in Chicago read the tally of his delegate lead over his rivals -- he seems to be figuring that the best way to get the Republican Party to see him as its standard-bearer is to start acting like he already is.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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