COLUMBUS, Ohio—There’s a moment in the middle of Mitt Romney’s “closing argument” when he admits that his fellow Republicans have been—for want of a better word—jerks. He got there 15 minutes into his final Ohio speech, after he and his wife, Ann, exited an airplane that had been slowly and dramatically parked in front of the crowd to the ear-splitting sounds of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
“If the president were to be re-elected,” said Romney, “he still wouldn’t be able to work with the people in Congress, of course, because he’s ignored them. He’s attacked them. He’s blamed them. The debt ceiling will come up again. And then there’ll be a threat of shutdown or default. And if that happens, the economy will become frozen. You’ll have a harder time finding jobs. The president was right when he said he can’t change Washington from the inside, only from the outside. Let’s give him that chance!”
Those words got floor-stomping cheers from the crowd of 10,000 or so Republicans, which included two members of the aforementioned Congress. Those guys had been there, voting in unison against the February 2009 stimulus package. Rep. Eric Cantor, now the House majority leader, had told Republicans not to vote for the bill, to deny it any “bipartisan” cover when Barack Obama’s approval was at his apex. When the GOP obliged, Cantor’s office released a video called “The House Republicans Are Back!” Calculations of all the alleged stimulus waste appeared onscreen as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler screamed, “I’m baaaaaack! I’m back in the saddle again!”
At this late date it feels strange to argue that the Republican Party, in the Obama era, has been unusually obstructionist. Senate Republicans have filibustered bills and judges at a steadier pace than any previous Congress. The current class of House Republicans bent the debt ceiling vote into a showdown over spending cuts. After the pathetic compromise that ended that fight—the sequester, an automatic $1.4 billion of spending cuts that will probably get punted—Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating and moaned that “the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.”
Hearing Mitt Romney say he’ll fix this problem is like watching Cleavon Little hold himself “hostage” in Blazing Saddles. But he’s trying to collect on a bet that Republicans placed years ago. Since January 2009, they’ve denied Democrats cover on their own bills, expecting voters to blame the president when Washington failed. If it doesn’t work today, it will go down as one of the weakest long games in political history.
Here’s the first problem. Voters don’t actually hold President Obama responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in their capital. According to Gallup, the president enters Election Day with a 52 percent approval rating—not that unusual, after months of campaigning and mudslinging. More compelling are the polls that have shown, consistently, that voters bear residual ill will against the last Republican president. In mid-September, when CNN asked voters whether they blame Barack Obama or George W. Bush for their economic problems, 38 percent said Obama and 54 percent said Bush. This was four full years after Lehman Bros.
But Republicans have never taken that seriously. On Fox News or talk radio, the very mention of Bush starts the conservative host laughing at the pathetic idea of “blaming Bush for everything.” In Columbus, Romney hit the nerve like this: “On January 20, I won’t just take office. I’ll take responsibility.” This shifts the “blame Republicans” burden from the voters, who believe it, to the president, who sounds pathetic when he says it. “A lot of people who blame Congress are probably the people who get their information from the evening news, which slants the story against Congress,” said Lisa Pranckh, a Dublin, Ohio, mom at the Columbus rally.
The “blame Obama” case should be easy to make. In September, Bob Woodward published a tick-tock of the debt ceiling fight. It was, by far, the most jaded and damning portrait of the president published by a journalist with access. (This excludes Ed Klein and his secondhand anonymous sources.) The Romney campaign immediately lifted one anecdote from the book for a TV ad, telling voters that the hapless Obama couldn’t even get Democrats to listen to him during the stimulus fight. In October, after Romney blamed Obama for the sequester—which was purely a product of the debt deal, and which Paul Ryan supported—Woodward spoke up, confirming that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew had endorsed the idea, as a trigger for a better deal.