[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Unemployment is still high, and President Obama's convention speech was solid but not spectacular, and yet he has a small but significant lead in the polls. Obama received an an approval bump after the convention, and a bounce bigger than Mitt Romney's after the Republican convention, which wasn't much of a bounce at all.
Reacting to the unemployment situation in light of the latest disappointing jobs report, conservative columnist George Will said on Sunday's "This Week": "[I]f the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business."
But Romney is not winning. Generally, when the economy is doing this tepidly in September, it
spells doom for the incumbent president. What's going on? Why is Obama
Implied in Will's remark is that the Republicans are somehow not running their campaigns correctly. That is, a GOP candidate doing a good job would win in the current economic environment. I would argue that in the modern Republican party, it is impossible for Will's conception of a good candidate to secure a nomination. That is, the very qualities necessary to get a GOP nomination, especially for president, are the very characteristics that are giving Obama (and a surprising number of Democratic U.S. Senate and U.S. House candidates) the lead despite the unemployment numbers.
The current Republican argument is, essentially, this: There is too much government, so if you elect us, we will cut taxes for the wealthy and remove regulations, which will lead to a stronger economy and jobs for everyone.
I think there is a reason why this argument (offered by this GOP presidential candidate) just isn't flying with enough swing voters right now to put Romney ahead. Simply put, they don't trust him.
We live in a time of decreasing public faith in institutions, including the government. The Republican argument asks voters for an awful lot of trust. That is, a president and Congress cannot legislate the economy directly, but rather they can only make law and policy that they hope will result in positive economic developments. What Romney and his party are asking the American people to do is to trust that the policy they are offering (tax cuts for the wealthy), which will have no direct impact on middle class and working class voters struggling in the current economy, will eventually help them, because these candidates say they will.
(It should be noted that Romney and Paul Ryan are also asking the American people to trust them on the specifics of their tax policies, since they won't disclose details on what they intend to do. Such an approach can be problematic when, according to a recent Pew study, 58 percent of Americans think the wealthy currently pay too little in federal taxes, making the argument for additional tax cuts even harder to sustain.)
For this approach to work, the voters have to trust that they will
benefit from the policies that will initially only help people like
Romney and Ryan. And right now, enough voters don't trust the Republicans on this issue.
When the Republicans in the House brought the country to the brink of financial collapse in 2011 by holding the noncontroversial debt ceiling extension hostage, Americans had far more trust in Obama than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner or House Whip Eric Cantor to do the right thing, and it wasn't even close (48 percent v. 30 percent v. 33 percent v. 26 percent, respectively). So going into the 2012 elections, trust may not have been a strong suit for the Republicans.
And then in the Republican convention, the main takeaway from Ryan's speech was that it was filled with lies, a fact acknowledged from sources ranging from progressive media watch dogs (like Think Progress) to a columnist for the Fox News website. Ryan's subsequent lie about his marathon time (first reported not by a liberal media source but by Runner's World) only solidified his public image as a first class pervaricator.
Ryan's lies fit in well with Romney's seeming inability to tell the truth, a frequent problem for him dating back to the GOP primary campaign. More recently, Romney was nailed for running patently dishonest television commercials about Obama's welfare policy, and Rather than apologizing and pulling the spots, the Romney campaign doubled down on the lie, with an aide saying, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
Clearly, Romney and Ryan aren't the guys to make a successful "trust us" argument to the electorate.
Meanwhile, one of the most lauded speeches at the Democratic convention was given by Bill Clinton, and the bulk of it found the former president debunking the assertions made by Romney, Ryan and others at the Republican convention.
It's no wonder then that the undecided voters in key swing states who will determine the winner in November are not ready to trust Romney and Ryan enough to buy into a policy that doesn't help them initially, but only will based on the promises of those who would benefit immediately. They don't trust Romney and Ryan to deliver.
Throw in the GOP's shift to the extreme right on social issues (as I discussed last month in the context of Todd Aiken's "legitimate rape" statement), which is scaring away some women voters, and the president's ability to hold a lead in the polls despite the economic conditions starts to make clear sense.
George Will may think Romney should be able to win in the current economic environment, but what he is missing is that given the hard shift to the right the Tea Party-dominated Republicans have taken in the last few years, GOP candidates are stuck with a platform and policy agenda that alienate the voters they need to reach the most. Will says that if Romney loses in November, Republicans should get out of politics, but by embracing an extreme right-wing agenda and then lying about it, it is as if the party already has.