On a day when the Republican nominee-in-waiting should have been doing a victory lap, things didn't quite go as planned.
Mitt Romney adopted a new defense of George W. Bush in Maryland on Wednesday. Getty Images
ARBUTUS, MARYLAND -- Mitt Romney said Wednesday that former President George W. Bush deserves credit for averting total economic collapse, not President Obama.
Romney delivered a passionate defense of the 2008 bank bailouts at a town hall here, aligning himself with the still-unpopular former president in the process.
"I keep hearing the president say that he's responsible for keeping America from going into a Great Depression," Romney said. "No, no, no. That was President George W. Bush and [then-Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson."
Though Romney has previously spoken in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the full-throated defense, and the credit he gave to Bush, were surprising and seemed to open a new front in what's likely to be a major theme of the general election -- the relitigating of Bush's record in office. Democrats frequently point to Bush's policies as the source of the economy's continued tribulations, while Republicans say Obama hasn't done enough, or hasn't done the right things, to turn it around.
During the 2008 crash, Romney said, "President Bush and Hank Paulson said, 'We've got to do something to show we're not going to let the whole system go out of business.' I think they were right. I know some people disagree with me, but I think they were right to do that."
Though the bailout was seen as a necessary emergency measure at the time -- and was supported by a broad bipartisan consensus that included then-Senator Obama -- "bailouts" have since become a dirty word and one of the animating hatreds of the Tea Party.
Romney might have been inspired by his morning's interaction with another member of the Bush family. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and powerful GOP force, endorsed Romney Wednesday morning, in a powerful signal that the Republican establishment is ready to anoint Romney as the nominee in the wake of his big win in Illinois on Tuesday.
Romney also addressed the press after his town hall to respond to the kerfuffle surrounding his adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's comment comparing the campaign to an Etch A Sketch toy.
It was a powerfully resonant image for those predisposed to see Romney as a man without principles. His opponents seized on the comment as proof that Romney's conservative primary positions were a mere put-on and would swiftly disappear in a general-election contest. A spokeswoman for Rick Santorum, Alice Stewart, even showed up at the town hall here, in a blue-collar town southwest of Baltimore, holding a toy Etch A Sketch.
The comment, Stewart told reporters outside the American Legion post where Romney's event was held, "acknowledged our worst fears" about Romney.
Romney, in a one-question news conference after the town hall concluded, said the comment was about campaign operations, not philosophy.
"Organizationally, a general-election campaign takes on a different profile," he said. "The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I've run as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee -- er, excuse me, at that point, hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same."
On a day Romney ought to have been doing a victory lap, his status as the nominee all but assured, it's safe to say things didn't go as planned.
Even an attempt at a joke with a sympathetic questioner fell a little flat. The man said he was a businessman too, with the only difference being that Romney talks about having failed, and "I haven't failed yet."
"You will," Romney assured him. "It's the nature of the private sector."
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.