Republicans say they're eager for the presidential campaign to turn away from "distractions" and focus instead on the economy. Someone should warn them that if they're not careful, they might get their wish.
It is true that voters' unhappiness with high unemployment and slow growth poses a challenge for President Obama as he seeks re-election. But for Mitt Romney and the GOP to take advantage of this potential opening, they'll have to do more than chant the word "economy" like a mantra. They have to make the case that their policies will work better than Obama's.
And what might Romney's proposed economic policies be? Why, they're basically the same as those of George W. Bush, only worse.
Just as Obama owns the recession and the slow recovery, Bush owns the financial crisis that sent the slumping economy over a cliff. But for all his sins -- the gratuitous tax cuts, the off-budget wars, the defiance of basic arithmetic -- Bush at least demonstrated a certain empathy for Americans who struggle to make ends meet. One of his budget-busting initiatives, for example, was expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs without worrying about how this much-needed new benefit would be paid for.
It's safe to predict that Romney would never make such a gesture out of compassion for the beleaguered middle class. To this day, he refuses to take back his criticism of Obama for bailing out General Motors and Chrysler -- even though letting the companies fail would have meant the extinction of the U.S. auto industry and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
It is a measure of Romney's ideological stubbornness that even with Chrysler rebounding under new ownership and GM reporting record profits, he still insists that his view -- let the companies go bankrupt so the "creative destruction" of capitalism could work its magic -- was correct.
Romney is something of an expert on creative destruction, I guess, having orchestrated a good deal of it while running the private-equity firm Bain Capital. The Obama campaign recently released an ad about one of Bain's less successful acquisitions, a small steel mill in Kansas City called GST Steel.
The company, which was more than 100 years old, failed after a decade under Bain's ownership; GST's 750 employees lost their jobs, pensions and health benefits. Bain, however, made money, investing $8 million in the company and taking out $4 million in profits and $4.5 million in management fees. The Romney campaign contends that GST, with its unionized work force, could not compete with cheap foreign steel being dumped on the market. The Obama campaign alleges that Bain burdened GST with crushing debt while sucking the company's coffers dry.
Is this the genius of free markets at work, or is it "vulture capitalism" run amok? Let's have that argument. Please.
Let's also have a long, detailed discussion of Romney's economic plans versus Obama's. Romney wants to make tax rates for the wealthy even lower than they are now; Obama wants a small increase for those making more than $1 million a year. Romney's entire economic plan, basically, involves tax cuts and deregulation -- in other words, a repeat of the Bush-era policies that led to the crisis.
Does Romney have any fresh ideas? Well, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he was smart enough to see that universal health coverage would not only improve the lives of the uninsured but also help rein in runaway medical costs. He found the solution in an innovative idea developed in Republican-leaning think tanks: an individual health insurance mandate.
It worked. In fact, it was Romney's greatest policy success as a public official. But now he doesn't talk about it much.
My guess is that Republicans won't want to talk about the past or the future in much detail. They'd like to keep things blurry, so that we only see Romney in broad outline: a successful businessman who'll put us back in business. For details, we'll mail you the prospectus.