Reimagining 2012

Political junkie that I am, I just finished reading yet another book about the 2012 election, Dan Balz’ Collision 2012: Obama v. Romney and the future of elections in America.  I thought it was first-rate, outstanding; very even-handed and fair.  Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago and which I also liked at lot, nonetheless was odd unbalanced: about 60% about the Obama campaign, and 40% about the Romney campaign.  Balz’ book focuses much more on Romney–at least 70% of the book is about the Republican candidates–but that seems fair to me.  After all, Romney had to win the Republican nomination first, and only then, after that grueling battle, turn to the general election.  Obama was unopposed among Democrats.

The book is also very fair to Mitt Romney personally, which I also appreciated.  It portrays him as a somewhat gaffe-prone campaigner, but as a decent and caring man, a man of family and faith, and a much more effective candidate than he’s often portrayed.  The book does dissect his electoral loss, but blames it more on demographics than any personal failings of Mitt Romney himself. I agree with that perspective.

One theme I found both fascinating and a bit depressing is how hard a long campaign is on the candidates’ families. Several prominent Republicans considered running for President, including men who may well have been formidable contenders–Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour.  Daniels was thought by some to have the strongest credentials of any in the field–a very successful governor, with federal experience.  But his wife wouldn’t hear of it–and one can hardly blame her.

Mitt Romney polled his family before running in 2008. At a family retreat, the governor, his wife, Ann, their five children and their children’s spouses each got a vote; the tally was 12-0 to run.  Having gone through it once, though, in 2011, the family voted very differently.  This time, it came out 10-2 against running, with Ann Romney and oldest son Tagg the only votes in favor of running. For most of the Romneys, it was just too grueling, too invasive, too unpleasant. Ann was willing to do it, though, and Tagg was able to talk the other kids and spouses around. And he ran, frankly, because Mitt Romney was a patriotic man afraid for the future of his country.  I respect that.

Eventually, of course, after further discussion, Governor Romney did run, won the nomination and lost the general election, but it’s intriguing to wonder what might have happened if the Governor had followed his initial instinct and withdrawn.  Who would the Republican candidate have been?  Rick Perry?  Rick Santorum?  Newt Gingrich?  I have to think that any of them would have been a much weaker candidate than Romney proved to be.  Perhaps the election would have been a bigger landslide than it turned out to be?  Perhaps Obama would have had bigger coattails, maybe even winning back the House of Representatives?  It’s intriguing to consider.

But, let’s consider another alternate universe mind game.  What if, instead of John McCain, Mitt Romney had been the Republican candidate in 2008?  Could he have won?  After all, his main appeal was as a businessman who could fix an ailing economy. The economy was a good deal sicker in 2008 than in 2012.  What if Romney had won the Presidency in 2008?

First of all, we wouldn’t be talking about Obamacare now, would we?  But I think it’s likely that we would be talking about health care.  Mitt Romney’s signal achievement as governor of Massachusetts was health care reform. And considering that Americans spend twice as much as most other nations on health care, with significantly poorer health outcomes, I think any President in 2008 would have to at least consider making health care reform a priority.  Differences between Romneycare and Obamacare are trivial, and the aspects of the ACA that conservatives hate the most, especially the individual mandate, are also part of the Massachusetts plan.  I think, therefore, that Romney would propose a national plan essentially similar to Obamacare, with the only real difference being that Republicans would generally support it.  And I think Democratic opposition would be fairly muted.  Anything that helps poor people get coverage would find fairly substantial Democratic support.  So I think, in 2012, we’d still be implementing Obamacare, only it’d be named after Romney, and popular with conservatives.

But I also think that the Democratic candidate in 2012, whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, would very likely have held Romney to a single term as President.

The economy was in very serious trouble in 2008.  The initial steps to save it–bail out banks, save the auto industry–would probably also have been implemented by Romney.  But Mitt Romney is a Republican.  Nowadays, that generally implies disdain for Keynesian macro-economics, and a fondness for supply-side solutions.  And given that what we faced in 2007-8 was a liquidity trap, in which the zero lower bound on short-term interest rates rendered monetary policies alone ineffectual, I don’t think Romney would have embraced the obvious Keynesian solution.  I don’t think he would have, or even politically could have, asked Congress for a stimulus package.

Look at Romney’s 2012 campaign.  His entire appeal was technocratic–I’m a businessman, I know how to fix an ailing economy, I’m capable of getting under the hood of our economic engine and tinkering with it and getting it running again.  But his specific proposals were utter nonsense.  He embraced the Paul Ryan plan.  He talked about a tax cut.  He insisted that his tax cut would be revenue neutral, because he would off-set it by closing deductions, but the numbers never came close to adding up–there simply weren’t enough deductions that could be closed.

In other words, to the extent that Governor Romney offered a specific plan to fix the economy, it made no sense.  He wanted to cut spending (unspecified).  He wanted to cut taxes, which, he said, wouldn’t add to the deficit because his tax cuts would be balanced by closing loopholes (unspecified, and imaginary).  At a time when we needed to pump more money into the economy, he proposed pulling money out of the economy.  And what’s the point in a tax cut that’s revenue-neutral?  Do we want to increase the money supply, or decrease it?  And do investors, when considering investments, even worry much about tax rates?  Isn’t their main concern ‘is this a good investment?’

So let’s suppose that he won election in 2008, facing the same world-wide economic crisis that Obama faced.  Everything we know about the man tells us he would have embraced austerity, like Europe did.  And we know, for an absolute certainty, what austerity in the face of a demand-side recession does.  It deepens the recession.  We know that, with complete assurance, because that’s what’s what happened to the Europeans.

I will grant you that the economy hasn’t exactly been robust under Obama.  That’s because the amount of stimulus the economy needed was at least double the amount that it actually got. In addition to funding shovel-ready infrastructure improvements, we should have given states block grants so they wouldn’t have had to lay off so many public employees.  (Job losses in the public sector are the main driver of high unemployment right now).  Right now, unemployment rates in the US are around 7.3%. That’s too high.  That’s not great.  We still have a major unemployment problem.  But it’s higher in England, and well over 10% in France.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that Romney could have campaigned as a Hayekian and governed as a Keynesian. The man does seem to embrace a certain . . . flexibility of mind.  I don’t see him as a conservative idealogue.  But if there is one macro-economic doctrine with a proven track record of unequivocal failure, it’s supply-side, trickle-down, Laffer curve economics.  Or, in other words, the basic working assumptions of the Paul Ryan budget plan.

Anyway, it’s fun to speculate, and I could be entirely wrong about all of it.  But it’s interesting to think about a world in which Obamacare is a Republican idea, embraced by conservatives, and in which we really did try austerity, and watched it fail here too.  All things considered, I’ll take the reality we actually have.



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