It's Hard to Be Reagan When Your Message Is Such a Downer

Lots of Republicans want Mitt Romney to be Ronald Reagan, the last Republican challenger to defeat a Democratic president in a weak economy.

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Lots of Republicans want Mitt Romney to be Ronald Reagan, the last Republican challenger to defeat a Democratic president in a weak economy. Reagan's name -- or Jimmy Carter's -- is invoked at just about every turn -- even when the better-than-expected jobs report Friday showed unemployment dropping to 7.8 percent. Which highlights one of the many well-documented ways Romney is not like Reagan: his message is a downer. Just look at his press release in response to the jobs numbers, in which he said:

"This is not what a real recovery looks like. We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we’ve lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office. If not for all the people who have simply dropped out of the labor force, the real unemployment rate would be closer to 11%..."

Under a President Romney, he said, there would be a "real recovery." Other Republicans reacting to the report brought up the R-word. "The workforce participation rate hasn’t been this low since Jimmy Carter was President," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said. "To punditry claiming this secured an Obama victory, Carter lost to Reagan with unemployment hovering at 6 percent. 7.8 percent ain't worth bragging about," tweeted one Republican Hill staffer. There have been so many Reagan-Carter analogies you barely notice them anymore. Gingrich compared Romney to Reagan after his Republican National Convention speech in August. "Like Reagan, Romney can still win," The Washington Post's Marc Thiessen wrote October 1, predicting Romney's debate dominance.  "Republicans to Mitt Romney: You're no Ronald Reagan," Politico's James Hohmann wrote September 23, reflecting feelings that Romney hadn't been Reaganesque. Demanding a campaign management intervention September 18, The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan told Romney to stare "deep into the abyss," and, once properly chastened, hire Reagan's former campaign manager, James Baker.

But Reagan was known for his "sunny optimism," a persona that contrasted Mr. Sweater-Malaise Jimmy Carter. (He never said "malaise.") Look at Reagan being all sunny and optimistic in 1980. Reagan is so associated with "sunny optimism" ("Reagan had been caricatured as a cowboy who couldn’t be trusted with the reins of power, but his sunny optimism on the screen softened all his rough edges," Entertainment Weekly said this week of his 1980 debate) that it's a cliché liberals try to push back against ("The divisive underbelly of Reagan’s sunny optimism," Salon said last year).

The core message of Reagan's 1980 campaign was, of course, the dismal economy, and affixing the blame squarely on Jimmy Carter. Just a few days before Election Day, Reagan gave a televised address that was primarily about how "the mighty music of American economic progress has been all but silenced by four years of Mr. Carter’s failures." But he cast the dismal economic numbers in empathetic terms and remembered to always end on a note of optimism and hope. Here's the sad adorable slice of Americana he used to close his address:

Each American family has its own story about what the Carter economy has done.  But the other day I came across a story that sums up what the American people have been through.  The story is all the more poignant because it concerns a child’s disappointment.

It appeared in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, News-Sentinel and concerns a Fort Wayne fifth grader named Andrea Baden who wanted to buy a pair of roller skates. So, in the great American tradition, she saved her allowance until she had the money to buy them.

Andrea put it this way: “When I went back to the store the price had gone up. I saved more money but when I got back again, the price had gone up again. It’s just not fair.”

That’s right, Andrea: What Mr. Carter has done to this country’s economy just isn’t fair. It just isn’t right.

But Andrea has learned something as a fifth grader that Mr. Carter seems to have forgotten or not to have learned at all: inflation hurts people. It hurts when you want to buy a pair of roller skates—and it hurts when adults have to buy food and pay for heating and other necessities. It hurts older Americans who suffer unimaginably from what inflation does to the fixed incomes. And unemployment hurts even more.

This election is going to determine what kind of country Andrea Baden and millions of other American children are going to grow up in. Will it be a country in which everything keeps on going up in price, and jobs are harder to find and keep? Or will it be a country where, because of our efforts, beginning in January of 1981, savings will mean something, prices will be stable, and there will be jobs for people who want to work?

I would like very much to do something about that lack of fairness to hard-working Americans and, Andrea, to thrifty Americans like you.

I need your help, your support, and your prayers.  But first of all, I need your commitment, your hope, and your belief in this great nation’s ability to begin again.

It just hasn’t been fair or easy for any of us for the past four years.

I think the time has come for fair play for Americans. If you agree, together we can have a new beginning, for ourselves and for our children.

Romney? Romney kicked off his campaign with a Ruin Porn tour, giving speeches in front of empty strip malls and factories with trees growing out of the window.

It's not so much that he's rooting for the economy to fail, but he seems to have a hard time getting very excited about economic improvement. In March, after there were several months in a row of good jobs reports (several bad ones followed in the spring), Romney and the other Republican presidential candidates didn't quite know what to say about the economy. Romney and Newt Gingrich started talking about gas prices. He didn't sound too happy when he told The Wall Street Journal's Sara Murray and Carol E. Lee, "The economy always comes back after a recession, of course. There's never been one we didn't recover from."

Romney's response to this morning's encouraging data was to refuse to recognize it and then rattle off some statistics about "President Obama’s failed policies." Reagan did this, too: visiting Flint, Mich., on October 15, he responded to Carter's claims the economy was improving with double-digit unemployment figures for Michigan and adding, "Well, I'm going to leave it to you to decide whether your economic picture is getting brighter."

But Romney has never really been good at painting the rosy future that awaits America under his leadership. What he has been good at is telling people how horrible the economy is. Take a look at his closing statement from Wednesday's debate. He starts off talking about the two paths we have to choose from, but he primarily talks about about bad one of them will be. It's almost as he's daring America not to elect him President.

This is a -- this is an important election. And I’m concerned about America. I’m concerned about the direction America has been taking over the last four years. I know this is bigger than election about the two of us as individuals. It’s bigger than our respective parties. It’s an election about the course of America -- what kind of America do you want to have for yourself and for your children.

And there really are two very different paths that we began speaking about this evening. And over the course of this month we’re going to have two more presidential debates and vice presidential debate. We’ll talk about those two paths. But they lead in very different directions. And it’s not just looking to our words that you have to take in evidence of where they go; you can look at the record.

There’s no question in my mind that if the president were to be re-elected you’ll continue to see a middle-class squeeze with incomes going down and prices going up. I’ll get incomes up again. You’ll see chronic unemployment. We’ve had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent. If I’m president, I will create -- help create 12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes.

If the president’s re-elected, “Obamacare” will be fully installed. In my view, that’s going to mean a whole different way of life for people who counted on the insurance plan they had in the past. Many will lose it. You’re going to see health premiums go up by some $2,500 per -- per family. If I’m elected, we won’t have “Obamacare.” We’ll put in place the kind of principles that I put in place in my own state and allow each state to craft their own programs to get people insured. And we’ll focus on getting the cost of health care down.

If the president were to be re-elected, you’re going to see a $716 billion cut to Medicare. You’ll have 4 million people who will lose Medicare advantage. You’ll have hospitals and providers that’ll no longer accept Medicare patients.

I’ll restore that $716 billion to Medicare.

And finally, military. If the president’s re-elected, you’ll see dramatic cuts to our military. The secretary of defense has said these would be even devastating. I will not cut our commitment to our military. I will keep America strong and get America’s middle class working again.

The economic situation of 2012 might have been Carteresque, but Romney hasn't sounded Reaganesque. He still doesn't.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.