Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- When good news happens to a bad candidate like Mitt Romney, it makes an already difficult situation worse. He has enough trouble communicating any message, much less a mixed one.
What’s he to do with good economic news, a source of joy to most of his fellow Americans but a real downer for the self-styled business genius who says he is so much better at creating jobs than the community organizer occupying the White House?
The government reported last week that the unemployment rate fell in January to 8.3 percent, the lowest level since February 2009. In more “negative” news, the stock market rose this week to highs it hasn’t seen since the spring of 2008, when there was still a Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. A Dow Jones Industrial Average of 13,000, which is dangerously close, is the kind of number that travels straight to the bloodstream of Romney’s homeboys on Wall Street. Even independent economists are cautiously optimistic. Discussing three months of declining unemployment, some actually appeared to smile on TV.
How much good news can one candidate take? Romney’s dilemma is exacerbated by the shaky ground he already walks on. Enough doubt and resentment rumble just below the surface of his presumed nomination that a candidate as ludicrous as Newt Gingrich can tap into it just by speaking in full sentences at a debate, and a candidate as unlikely as Rick Santorum can attract attention merely by wearing sweater vests. Imagine what a revived economy would do.
Romney isn’t the first candidate to wish for the worst. Challengers frequently find themselves hoping for bad news at the right time, or dreading good news at the wrong time. Senator John Kerry based much of his 2004 presidential candidacy on ending the Iraq War. Never a happy fellow, you could almost see the pain on his face at George W. Bush’s successes in Baghdad, however transient they would prove to be. Although he was careful to support the troops, Kerry needed the mission to fail so he could succeed.
Ronald Reagan was a more adept communicator. He never criticized Jimmy Carter for not ending the Iranian hostage crisis. But with John Wayne swagger, Reagan kept up a steady stream of talk about how restoring America’s honor and power in the world would prevent such a thing from ever happening again. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini delivered a Hollywood ending: As Reagan raised his hand to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981, the hostages were freed.
Romney’s no Reagan. He’s not even Kerry. When he’s not expressing his lack of concern for the very poor, or his enjoyment at firing people, he’s issuing bromides on his one-note (but 59-point!) job-creating platform. Supporters and elite conservative pundits are anxiously urging him to broaden his appeal.
But how? He can’t make an issue out of the health-care crisis because Romneycare is an epithet to many in his own party. On immigration, he’s moved so far right, he’s at odds with his own church (he’ll no doubt inch his way back in the general election in an effort to win the Hispanic vote, but he can’t do that now). Tax reform is a difficult subject because he pays a 13.9 percent rate and has as many shelters in the Cayman Islands as houses in the U.S. He has no foreign policy experience, unless you count his stint as a Mormon missionary in France, which I don’t. (Has anyone else noticed that he almost never utters the word “Mormon”?) He could talk about his four years as governor of Massachusetts, except they include the unmentionable Romneycare and a shameful rate of job creation, the fourth-lowest in the country.
A Lovely Family
There are a few bright spots, for Romney if not the rest of us. We all appreciate that he has a lovely family and can sing “America the Beautiful.” Meanwhile, gasoline prices continue to rise, ditto a quart of milk and a loaf of bread. And have you put your house on the market lately? Bummer. But none of this is enough for a platform.
After his win Saturday in Nevada, Romney instructed his supporters not to believe for a second that the economy is getting better. From his alternate universe he criticized President Barack Obama for taking “a bow for 8.3 percent unemployment. Not so fast, Mr. President.” He continued: “We welcome any good news on the jobs front, but it is thanks to the innovation of the American people in the private sector and not to you.” Of course the private sector creates jobs, though it’s less clear how much Romney’s little subdivision did on that front: 22 percent of 77 businesses Bain invested in during Romney’s tenure either went bankrupt or shut down within eight years. What’s abundantly clear is that leading a private-equity firm is a very good way to amass a $200-million-plus fortune.
That 8.3 percent unemployment rate obviously hurts. So Romney found another figure more to his liking: The underemployment rate, which accounts for those with part-time jobs who wish they had full-time jobs. That’s 15.1 percent. It’s a figure Republicans usually don’t mention, as it plays into Democratic appeals for continued unemployment benefits, and it’s down from a high of 17.2 percent in the fall of 2009. Still, for a candidate as desperate as Romney, any bad number will do.
Obama and Romney now face parallel dilemmas. Obama has to be careful not to make too much of this good news lest he look callous. Romney has to be careful not to make too little of it lest he look churlish.
Maybe Clint Eastwood can sort it all out. It’s halftime, if not morning, in America, he told Americans in an ad that aired during halftime in Sunday’s Super Bowl. Hard times come, said the former mayor of Carmel, California, but Americans get right back up again -- “because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.” He ended, “Our second half is about to begin.”
Dirty Harry made Obama’s day and ruined Romney’s. Yet there’s hope for the challenger yet. The stronger the economy gets, the more folks will come out of their depressed holes and start looking for work. Then the unemployment rate will tick back up. So Mitt Romney’s got to ask himself one question: Does he feel lucky?
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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