I spoke to Mitt Romney’s senior adviser, Ed Gillespie, by phone yesterday. He was unperturbed by and dismissive of the Obama camp’s “Romney lied” response to the president’s debate debacle. “It reflects desperation on their part,” he said matter-of-factly. As for the claim that Romney has changed or is lying about his tax plan, which President Obama insists is a $5 trillion tax cut for the rich, Gillespie said, “Even [Obama deputy campaign manager] Stephanie Cutter said they couldn’t substantiate it.”
After the Tax Policy Center looked at whether Romney could keep the code revenue neutral and maintain progressivity, six studies, according to Gillespie, said it could be done. So obviously Romney didn’t “change” his plan; he simply rebutted the accusation. Is Gillespie surprised at the Obama team’s response to Romney’s explanation of his tax plan? He seems somewhat bemused: “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It is like a 7-year-old losing at a checkers game who sweeps the board off.”
Gillespie plainly thinks Obama is now vulnerable, if for no other reason than his failure to articulate a second-term agenda. He told me: “The agenda is to raise taxes by $2 trillion. Joe Biden was half right [in admitting the campaign wanted to raise taxes by $1 trillion]. Their plan is to continue trillion-dollar deficits.”
He also rattles off a list of Obamacare implications: 20 million people will lose their employer-provided insurance, higher premiums, etc. The Romney campaign is convinced that the candidate with the agenda problem is Obama.
With Friday’s news that we have yet another year with a trillion-dollar deficit, Gillespie suggests that Romney is going to focus more on the debt: “This is a moral issue, as the governor said.” Romney will continue to make the case that the debt, which Obama can’t or won’t address, is acting as a drag on the economy.
The conflicting September jobs numbers (only 113,000 jobs created but a drop of 0.2 percent in the rate) have created a controversy as to whether they’re an accurate measure of job growth. Although the president is throwing himself a ticker-tape parade for an unemployment rate that’s identical to the one when he took office ($6 trillion in debt later), Gallup finds: “GDP growth was 1.3% in the second quarter and seems to be no better this quarter. The government’s Establishment survey shows there were 114,000 new jobs created in September — very close to the consensus of 113,000 — and not sufficient to lower the unemployment rate. The obvious conclusion is that a new employment measure is needed. . . . The lack of face-validity of the government’s unemployment numbers creates major problems, particularly during a presidential election year. The situation is worsened by the huge number of complex adjustments made to the data. Rather than debate whether something is wrong with the government’s estimation process, it seems reasonable to look at other measures as an alternative.”
Gillespie declined to weigh in on the controversy. “What I know is that job creation in September was lower than in August, which was lower than in July. GDP is lower than it was in 2011, which was lower than it was in 2010. This is not moving in the right direction. For every job created in the Obama presidency, six workers have left the job market.” Gillespie suggested that while the Obama campaign “may celebrate 23 million unemployed or underemployed,” Romney intends to argue that the president has failed in restarting the job engine.
Romney’s recent ads have arguably been some of the best of the campaign, eschewing the grainy images with jabs at the president’s record in favor of him and others talking directly to the camera with a more forward-looking message. Gillespie confirmed this is no accident. He told me that the ad “Too Many Americans” was “very impactful,” and that the debate showed voters are eager to hear Romney communicating directly to them. “The ads reinforce that,” he observed.
Without tooting his own horn, Gillespie highlights a growing consensus among Republicans: Since he took a more prominent role and took charge of sharpening the campaign’s message, the campaign operation has improved, been more nimble and made fewer unforced errors. The debate gave many the impression that the problems that plagued the campaign were not about Romney per se but were attributable in large part to a cumbersome and unfocused operation. While neither Romney nor Gillespie will acknowledge it, the campaign did undergo a sort of “turnaround,” making it an asset and not a detriment for a candidate who can in fact communicate well with voters.
Is there a danger of cockiness? Gillespie responded quickly, “No, not at all.” He said that the problem for Democrats is not that Romney did well on “style points.” Rather, Gillespie argued, “He did well on presenting a fact-based critique” of Obama. Gillespie contended, “Voters like the five-point plan. They liked the specifics.” The next 30 days, Gillespie promised, will feature Romney making the case for why his policies are the ones to lift up the country. He said, “The past is prologue.” He recapped: “President Obama promised health-care premiums would go down $2,500. They went up $2,500. More important, they will go up another $2,500. Twenty-million will lose employer-based insurance. He promised to cut the deficit in half, and we continue to have trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.” He said the bottom line is this: “Across the board, a future with Governor Romney’s policies will be better.”
The Obama team is spinning the debate as a sort of fluke, a stolen victory by Romney based on “style” and lies. The Romney team takes comfort in the insularity of that reaction and the seeming unwillingness of Obama to counter the Romney agenda with accurate criticisms and/or an agenda of his own. In the campaign’s eyes, the debate is the beginning of the great unmasking, the moment when the Obama facade and the web of distortions spun about Romney begin to disintegrate. In the next couple of weeks we will find out which side is right.