Mitt Romney has a George W. Bush problem.
In fact, that's Romney's biggest problem. It's George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, who has made voters skeptical of many of Romney's core policies. It's George W. Bush, not Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe, who persuaded voters that our ongoing economic problems aren't mainly Obama's fault. And so it is, in a sense, the electorate's lingering disappointment in George W. Bush, as much as its residual affection for Barack Obama, that Romney needs to beat if he's to become president.
At Tuesday's debate, Romney was given a chance to do just that. A voter from Nassau County stood up and asked: "Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?"
That's a slow pitch right over the middle of the plate. Romney should've been prepared to crush it. In fact, he should've been hoping against hope that someone would ask exactly that question. He needed that question.
But Romney didn't crush it. Astonishingly, his first instinct was to ignore it.
"Thank you," Romney said. “And I appreciate that question.” But his mind was still on the previous question. “I just want to make sure that, I think I was supposed to get that last answer,” he complained to moderator Candy Crowley.
This was one of Romney’s oddest tics, arguing endlessly and unhappily over the rules of debate. At times, it seemed he was running for parliamentarian rather than president. Crowley, with an exasperated look, assured him he could use the precious time he’d been allotted to distance himself from George W. Bush however he wanted. “Go ahead and use this two minutes any way you’d like to,” Crowley said, “the question is on the floor.”
Romney devoted the first bit of his answer to the previous question about contraception. Only later did he turn to address the central question about his candidacy: “Let me come back and answer your question,” he said. “President Bush and I are -- are different people and these are different times and that’s why my five point plan is so different than what he would have done.”
Notice what he didn’t say there. He didn’t say that Bush had gotten anything wrong before leaving office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history. He didn’t say “you’re right to be skeptical of Republicans, because we didn’t live up to your expectations last time.” He said, rather, “Have you heard about my five-point plan?”
Romney’s right about one thing: These are different times than when Bush ran for president. But that’s why his five-point plan is so depressing. It’s not just that there’s nothing in it that Bush wouldn't have endorsed in 2000. It’s that most of it actually would have made more sense in 2000.
Take Romney’s tax cuts. When Bush was proposing tax cuts without any offsets, the budget was in surplus, and tax receipts were at record highs. The policy made some sense. Romney’s tax cuts come at a time of enormous deficits and record low receipts. It’s a different time, but Romney’s policy, save for a vague promise to pay for it later, is the same.
“I’ll crack down on China,” Romney promised. But China’s currency manipulation has calmed. As Obama noted in the debate, China's currency has appreciated significantly. Their current account balance, according to the Peterson Institute’s Joseph Gagnon, has fallen from about 10.7 percent of GDP in 2007 to about 2 percent of GDP this year.
Moreover, as Chinese wages rise, and they fight for more high-skilled jobs, the threat from China becomes less about currency manipulation and more about competitiveness. Perhaps we could’ve kept some jobs by cracking down on China in 2000. In 2012, it's more like locking the barn after the horses have run off.
Romney promised that he would enter office with "a very robust policy to get all that energy in North America -- become energy secure.” The idea that this is different from Bush is laughable; Romney sounds just like him, promising to intensify the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. “Let me put this plainly,” Bush said in 2000. “Oil consumption is increasing. Our production is dropping. Our imports of foreign oil are skyrocketing. And this Administration has failed to act.” And tell me you can’t imagine this Bush line coming from Romney today: “My opponent says he is for natural gas – he just doesn’t like people to find it or move it.”
“I’m going to get us to a balanced budget,” Romney said. So did Bush. He endorsed amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget. But, like Romney, he was specific about his tax cuts and increases in military spending, but vague about his spending cuts. The result was much higher deficits.
Romney’s final point of differentiation from Bush was “championing small business.” Specifically, he promised to keep their taxes low and deregulate them. These are not exactly priorities Bush opposed. Romney then segued to his promise to repeal Obamacare, which, again, was no contrast with Bush.
So let’s go to the scoreboard: Romney offered precisely . . . nothing that Bush wouldn’t have proposed in 2000. And Romney left out some of his more salient agreements with Bush. For instance, both the Enron debacle and the financial crisis happened on Bush’s watch. As a result, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley and, later, Dodd-Frank laws to toughen financial regulation. But Romney has proposed rolling back both.
It fell to Obama to point out some disagreements between Bush and Romney. “You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush,” the president said. “George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher.”
Even that’s not true. On page 233 of “Renewing America’s Purpose,” Bush expresses his support for the recommendations of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, and in particular, their “reform plan modeled after the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program.” That was a premium support, or voucher, plan.
This year, 2012, is not 2000. We have deficits rather than a balanced budget. We have historically high unemployment rather than historically low unemployment. We’ve seen what the financial system can do when left unchecked. We’ve watched tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 fail to spark economic growth and seen a rising stock market fail to lift middle-class wages. We do need new thinking. But Romney isn’t offering any. His problem isn’t that the public is unfairly judging him by Bush’s policies. It’s that they’re fairly judging him by Bush’s policies.