In September 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed and John McCain panicked, it became obvious the former businessman Mitt Romney would have fared better against Barack Obama. As the fates would have it, that information simply came a few months too late.
This time, the prospect of a double-dip recession is looming well before the first primary votes are cast. Could it be that timing is finally going to work out in Romney’s favor?
While Romney’s chief rival, Rick Perry, is running on his record of presiding over impressive job growth in Texas during the past decade, Perry also is clearly more of a loose cannon than Romney. For the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, the times dictate that the “reassuring” Romney is preferable to the “revolutionary” Perry:
Both are harshly critical of Obama’s economic policies. But unlike Perry, Romney refuses to hurl the accusation of “socialism.” Romney argues that an overbroad condemnation of Social Security would leave Republicans “obliterated as a party.” His own 59-point economic plan contains a “number of options” for incremental entitlement reform — an approach the Wall Street Journal has criticized as “timid and tactical.” But Romney’s timidness on some issues is his main tactic against Perry. With the economy suffering a series of complex maladies, who wants a surgeon who performs only amputations?
The outcome of a presidential primary can’t be predicted by a single theory. A well-run campaign, or a poorly timed gaffe, can make all the difference. … But if this is the choice during a period of national stress, the advantage goes to the reassuring. During the financial panic of September 2008, John McCain’s response was emotional and chaotic — suspending his presidential campaign in order to make time for a series of rash and contradictory statements. Obama said little of interest, but he said it calmly. And he benefited greatly.
I think that’s about right — for now. But there are a few reasons that temporal qualifier might not last.
First, uncertainty abounds at the moment. In spite of the downgrade of the U.S. government’s credit rating, the yield on the 10-year Treasury has been bouncing around near or below 2 percent during the past few weeks — an unmistakable indication that investors are putting a premium on safety (as is gold’s continued strength). Consumer confidence has been rattled. The wavering dominoes over in Europe have everyone scared. In this environment, simple competence may well outweigh ideological purity — giving Romney a chance to catch and even surpass Perry in the polls.
But who knows when the uncertainty will end? (No one, of course; that’s why it’s called uncertainty…duh.) If consumers start shopping again and this turns out to be just a soft patch in what’s been a soft recovery, the electorate’s focus will shift back to more ideological issues as taxing and spending and Obamacare — the latter being a big disadvantage for Romney in the primary, at least.
Second, as Gerson notes, Perry’s “specific economic policies remain defiantly unspecific.” That lack of specificity leaves Perry open to charges, based on his rhetoric, that he would be a presidential bull in an economic china shop — and it enhances the reassuring nature of Romney, he of the 59-point economic plan.
But what if Perry comes out with a detailed plan on taxes, spending, regulation, deficits and entitlements that eases worries among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents? How long, then, would Romney’s edge as the Man with the Plan last?
Finally, there’s a chance that things get worse — to the point that Perry’s “revolutionary” style makes him more attractive.
It’s a long shot; voters tend to be risk-averse when times are tough. But I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with an Irish business leader about how that country was able to summon the political will to slash its corporate tax rate to 12.5 percent, attract tons of investment and launch the Celtic Tiger phenomenon (which lasted until an overheated housing market based on overly low euro-zone interest rates caused overextended banks to seek overly generous bailouts from an overly profligate government that had long since spent the flood of tax revenues that came in the good times).
What he told me was, Sometimes you have to be staring at the abyss before you’re willing to take dramatic steps.
I hope we are not staring at the abyss anytime within the next 14 months. Not only because it would be bad in and of itself, but because the things you do in those situations might turn out well, but they also might turn out very badly.
That said, there’s at least a chance that revolutionary will seem like a good idea between now and November 2012. What an irony it would be if that didn’t become clear until after the reassuring Romney got the nod.
– By Kyle Wingfield