Mitt Romney: Adult or Empty Suit?


David Corn

Mitt Romney's crew likes to bill the straight-from-Central-Casting GOP presidential contender as the "adult" among the Republican 2012 wannabes. But the speech he delivered at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday was full of schoolyard immaturity.

The gathering itself, the most prominent annual hoedown of conservative activists, was an out-of-touch affair. While much of the world was gripped by the pro-democracy uprising in Egypt, CPAC speakers, including many GOP presidential aspirants, derided Obama as an America-hating socialist hell-bent on weakening and/or ruining this nation. Practically every bold-type name who strode to the podium ignored the inspiring and world-changing events in Egypt. Obama-bashing was more important.

For many, this was expected. (Former Sen. Rick Santorum, this means you.) But as someone who has talked up Romney's chances of winning the Republican nomination -- despite the fact he's a Mormon and a flip-flopping former Massachusetts governor who once supported health care mandates, abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control -- I was disappointed by his speech.

Certainly, Romney had to toss steak tartare to this crowd. (Think of CPAC as a zoo where you must feed the animals.) That meant slapping the president silly and braying like a conservative. He enthusiastically proceeded through such obligatory gestures. But what was most notable about his speech was that it was unserious -- especially regarding the topic that Romney, a former CEO, claims to know something about: the economy.

Romney ripped Obama for responding to the economic crisis with "the most expensive failed social experiment in modern history." What did Romney have in mind? Obama's stimulus program? By the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's calculations, Obama's recovery legislation saved or created up to 3 million jobs. Nevertheless, Romney went on to assert that Obama "guaranteed that unemployment wouldn't go beyond 8 percent." Not so. There was no "guarantee." As has pointed out, in response to other GOPers claiming that Obama promised 8-percent unemployment,

What we saw from the [Obama] administration was a projection [in an economic report], not a promise, and it was a projection that came with heavy disclaimers.

"It should be understood that all of the estimates presented in this memo are subject to significant margins of error," the report states. "There is more fundamental uncertainty that comes with any estimate of the effects of a [recovery] program."

Romney was relying on a discredited talking point. That's fine for a partisan hack -- but it's not how an "adult" behaves.

Romney then exclaimed that Obama "has stood watch over the greatest job loss in modern American history." Not a peep from him about the Bush-Cheney administration, the housing crisis, the subprime credit crisis, Wall Street, or the financial collapse that occurred in September 2008, prior to Obama being elected president. Romney, like many of his GOP competitors, had absolutely nothing to say about the cause of today's economic misery. And if you're keeping score at home, job loss peaked in January 2009, when the imploding economy shed about 800,000 jobs. As this chart shows, Bush "stood watch" over a cratering economy, and Obama's first year was marked by a dramatic drop in monthly job loss.

Romney denounced Obama for ignoring the "job crisis," and he urged Republicans to blame Obama for the economic mess of the past two years. He claimed the high unemployment rate "is a moral tragedy of epic proportion," brought to you by Barack Obama.

Okay, all politicians blame the guy in charge during miserable economic times for the misery. All's fair -- and Romney was hardly blazing a new trail. He predictably decried the failure of Obama's "liberal" policies, claiming that "the president and his fellow liberals turned to Europe for their answers." Lousy answers, that is.

So what's the right answer, Mitt? What are the policy prescriptions that ought to be advanced to free Americans from the shackles of unemployment? What steps would a President Romney be adopting right this very moment to bring jobs to those millions of Americans out of work? At this point in the speech, I was ready to hear how Romney could be the white knight who rides in and puts all his years of CEOing to good use and saves the nation from its economic troubles. Cue the hero. Enter, stage right.

But here's what Romney said:

The right answer is not to believe in European solutions. The right answer is to believe in America -- to believe in free enterprise, capitalism, limited government, federalism.

That was it. Believe in America. Believe that it "is an exceptional nation of freedom and opportunity and hope." Rather than provide a single example of a pro-active measure that would help jobless Americans, this onetime corporate executive declared, "I will not apologize for America! I don't apologize for America because I believe in America!" (Those exclamation points are in the text of the speech.) Query: How does not apologizing for America create jobs?

After Romney droned on about how tough it is for the unemployed, this was his bottom-line message: Let them eat hollow rhetoric. Romney, it turned out, had nada to contribute to the national discussion about how to revive the economy. He didn't even call for tax cuts.

He offered bromides not proposals, not even vague ideas. Up until this speech, it seemed to me that Romney -- who placed second in the CPAC straw poll behind Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian heartthrob -- presented the strongest threat to Obama, for I assumed he could talk about the economy more convincingly than other leading candidates. After CPAC, I'm not sure. He riled up the crowd with right-wing spin and boosted his conservative street cred, a critical mission for anyone seeking the Republican nomination. But the presumptive leader of the GOP pack showed minimal leadership potential. Of course, if the economy languishes for another year and a half, any GOPer will have a shot at defeating the president. But if this was the best Romney could do, this empty suit may not wear well.

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