US Presidential campaign: Never has the good news sounded so bad

The sudden growth of the US economy spells trouble for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Now we have reached a truly critical moment in the American presidential elections – and I don’t mean the moment when the Republican candidate soars away from his party rivals (I’d give it a few more weeks yet, if I were Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, about which more in a moment). No, I mean the moment when the paradigm shifts and the election scenario everybody has anticipated abruptly changes – because real life has changed.

For clearly it has: suddenly, the American economy appears to be growing. Job figures are up for January, which means they’ve been rising steadily for five months. An incredible wave of optimism has surged through Wall Street, and the Dow is dangerously close to hitting 13,000, a level it last approached back in 2008. Even consumer confidence – that somewhat mystical measure of how willing people are to spend money on things they may or may not need – was higher in the last quarter of 2011, according to the Nielsen Index. Nearly half of Americans – 49 per cent, to be precise – now say their personal financial prospects are “good to excellent”, up from 43 per cent in the previous quarter.

This is, of course, a disaster. Above all, it’s a disaster for the Republicans, who have squarely blamed the recession on President Obama. David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top campaign aides, has gleefully reminded them of this fact: when the Dow fell to 6,547 shortly after Obama took office, he tweeted, the Republicans “called it ‘the Obama market’. How about now?”

Fear and paranoia must be running especially high in the Romney camp. After all, their candidate has now ditched everything he previously stood for – health-care reform in Massachusetts, moderate stances on social issues – and thrown all of his eggs into one basket: “Vote for me, the economy is bad, I’m a businessman, I’ll get the economy to work again.” But if the economy is fine, then why do we need him?

Romney was actually asked this question last week on a radio programme, and ominously flubbed his answer. Of course the economy is recovering, he replied, rather tersely. “The question is, has it recovered by virtue of something the president has done, or has he delayed the recovery and made it more painful? And the latter, of course, is the truth.” When the talk-show host asked Romney whether “Obama is making the economy better, but vote for me anyway” might not be a hard argument to make, Romney snapped: “Do you have a better one, Laura?”

Now Romney’s party is beginning to ask some of these same questions. On Tuesday, Republicans in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota even voted, in effect, to keep the party’s primary process going. They did so not by casting votes for the inevitable Romney or the insurgent Newt Gingrich, but by choosing Rick Santorum, the dark horse former Pennsylvania senator. Although it’s late in the game, one final ABM (Anybody But Mitt) candidate now gets his run.

Clearly, Santorum is the beneficiary of the sudden good economic news. As a social conservative, he’s a lot more plausible than Gingrich: he has had only one wife, not three plus some mistresses. As a man of the people, he has more credibility than Mitt Romney: he comes from a blue-collar family, isn’t a billionaire, and doesn’t have Swiss bank accounts. He also has the advantage of seeming like a real person, and not a television actor – I met him once, and we had an interesting conversation about the state of the modern movie industry. He might not be the man you want to manage your economic meltdown, but if there isn’t going to be an economic meltdown, then so what?

Expect the Romney campaign now to focus like a laser on Santorum’s very non-centrist views on contraception (he’s against all of it) as well as his inexperience in economics and foreign policy. Sooner or later, someone is also going to pick up on the speech he made which confused Poland with Pakistan. Expect Santorum’s campaign, on the other hand, to focus with equal precision on Romney’s plutocratic lifestyle, and his ideological move from the centre to the Right (in America we call this “flip-flopping”). Both campaign tactics are good news for Obama: whoever emerges from this contest as the winner will have been badly damaged by the loser.

And yet – this unexpected situation is also tricky for the Democrats, more so than one would think. Until now, President Obama has blamed the recession on his predecessor: the phrase “Bush’s failed economic policies” has been a kind of Obama mantra, repeated over and over again. But if it’s not the president’s fault when the stock market goes down, how can he take credit when it goes up? Quite a lot of what happens when one is president is, let’s face it, sheer luck. This, in the end, is the true task of an election campaign: how to take credit for the good luck and blame the bad luck on someone else.

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