With his wins last night, Mitt Romney is building on a big delegate lead in the GOP primaries. Remaining contests linger, but anyone paying attention would bet their tax refund that Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. Still, it’s going to be great theater when Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich marshal their delegates and egos in slapsticky attempts to force a contested party convention this summer. Don’t forget, Ron Paul will also deliver a balls-to-the-wall speech if we’re lucky. Did I say theater? I meant sitcom.
Whether it’s Romney, or in the off-off-off-Broadway chance that Newton or Santo pull off the 16-to-1 political upset, we’re almost assured to see a familiar question dusted off once the general election campaign is underway. It was superbly asked by Ronald Reagan in his race for the White House in 1980. Reagan and Jimmy Carter had one debate, and Reagan twisted a knife in the incumbent with his closing remarks: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
(This is doubly impressive because as you can see below, Reagan must have stabbed Carter from like 20 feet away.)
That question was so simple and disarming that is turned a tight horserace into one where the winner knew he was a few lengths ahead as votes were cast.
The Republican candidate (okay, let’s just call him Romney already), Romney, is going to point to some dismal statistics, some of which will be apt, and some of which will be distortions, things a president has no control over, or things this one inherited, and use them to paint Obama as a failure and ask, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In fact, this line of attack has already been opened by some Conservative pundits.
That line worked in 1980. This year, it’s a canard. It’s a simpleton’s argument.
Here’s the thing. Some voters are going to think, “Hmm… am I better off? I don’t feel it.” In a bunch of cases, the answer is going to be no.
Sure, not everyone’s back to full strength, but, if people truly think back to the absolutely grim, raw reality of late 2008, they will probably realize their lot has improved since then. Still, many of them will rewind back to a time in 2006 or so, before the market tanked, before sub-prime burst, before they got laid off, and think they are not back to those days yet, and maybe it’s Obama’s fault.
First of all, that’s bull, and it’s not even my main point, but since November 2008, your pre-existing conditions are covered by health insurance, you have clearer and fewer credit card fees, you came home from Iraq, and your 401K has run up its returns quite a bit. Plus, even Romney agrees, the economy is recovering.
But, why is the question really a canard? Because it cheaply avoids and obfuscates the actual question of this election.
And President Obama should explicitly say so when it’s lobbed at him in a few months, with something like this:
“The real question to be asking yourself is, will you be better off in four years than you are now? What will make you better off? If you elect Governor Romney, will you be better off with his party’s policies than mine? Will your family’s taxes be higher than a millionaire’s? Will your son’s or daughter’s chicken pox vaccine still cost you an arm and a leg out of pocket? Will the highways and trains you take to work be safe and improved? Will you be able to rely on a robust Medicare and Social Security when you retire? Will anyone address the severe environmental problems the world faces that are related to extreme weather and climate change?
“It will take more work to follow through. That’s what second terms are for. Do I hope you are better off now than when my Administration inherited the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Of course. But, I know not everyone is. I’m here to make sure we’re all even better off, I’m here to make sure we’re thriving in another four years.”
To his credit, Obama (and his team) grasp the vast difference in vision he and the current crop of righter-than-usual Republicans have for the country, with the budget as focus. And he can articulate it.
Yesterday, in clear, palpable terms at the Associated Press Luncheon, he offered perhaps the best breakdown yet of the two parties’ plans, and a common sense, reasoned argument with real facts and numbers behind it to depict how logical and congenial his Administration’s approach is, and how unfair, absurd, and irresponsible the GOP plan is. It’s worth watching if you have some time. Don’t forget it this fall when Romney’s campaign is telling you how bad your lot in life is today and what they purport to do about it over the next four years.