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You can appreciate Mitt Romney's dilemma. The economy is supposed to be the win-or-lose issue in the presidential election, and your advantage is that voters tend to forget fairly soon how the bad times started and instead blame the man who inherited them. But how do you avoid triggering inconvenient memories?
George W. Bush, who left office only 40 months ago with a 22 percent approval rating, has helped the cause by staying out of sight and out of mind — until last week, when he told an ABC reporter as he was squeezing into an elevator that he supported Mitt Romney for president.
Romney has rarely uttered the name of the former Republican president whose taxing and spending practices, including a fourfold increase in military spending, sent the national debt spiraling out of control and whose regulatory and economic policies produced the worst economic collapse since 1929.
Romney called Bush to thank him for the endorsement and then avoided using his name so assiduously the next day that the media had to take notice. In a speech in Florida in which he attacked President Obama's debt and spending record, Romney alluded to Bush five times, but each time only as the president's "predecessor." He said Obama had justly criticized the big deficits of his predecessor but Obama's were worse.
That has been Romney's refrain for a long time. He can justify it by the raw numbers, as long as he doesn't have to explain them, but in a head-to-head campaign with the president rather than with a choir of Republican candidates it will be unavoidable. Obama's deficit and debt numbers are worse because the economy was in a free-fall when he took office. Bush's wars and the rising cost of income security in the recession meant necessarily rising deficits and debt.
Yes, there was Obama's big stimulus program. It came to $815 billion, spread over three years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that it added from 500,000 to 3.3 million jobs and raised GDP by up to 4.5 percent — better than Bush's record the preceding three years.
Romney has two big problems with his argument about the failure of Obama's economic initiatives.
First, when he was governor of Massachusetts and his state was failing to keep up with other states climbing out of the little Bush recession of 2001, Romney proposed stimulus programs with taxpayers' money totaling $600 million, mostly bribes to corporations to hire workers. It would come to $30,000 a job.
Second, Romney's oft-repeated charge that Obama inherited a bad economy and job situation and then proceeded to make it much worse will not withstand a minute's debate.
When Obama took office the economy was losing an average of 750,000 jobs a month. The job losses shrank as the stimulus kicked in that summer until October, when the unemployment rate bottomed out at 10 percent. The jobless rate now is 8.1 percent and it may not get back to Bush's ending rate of 7.6 percent before the election, but the reason for that is perverse for Romney, if he cares to pursue it.
The economy has regained about 4.3 million private-sector jobs so that there are more people employed in the private sector than when Bush was president. The jobless rate is still high because in the same period the number of government workers has fallen by 607,000 and governments are continuing to shed jobs. Republican orthodoxy is that eliminating government jobs is supposed to be a good thing.
That unpopular bailout that Romney sometimes subtly acknowledges was Bush's? Obama modified it by making shareholders take a haircut and forcing $140 billion of private money to recapitalize the 19 largest banks and unfreeze the lending market. The result was the banks repaid taxpayers with interest. Under the predecessor plan, the taxpayers might still be out $700 billion.
Same story with the automakers. They were going under with the Bush bailout. Obama re-engineered it, demanded that workers take a hit and put in more cash. America now has a growing auto industry and most of the $80 billion has been returned to the treasury.
If George W. Bush will stay off the stage, maybe Romney can stick to the simple message and avoid those troublesome details.