Gordon Campbell on the two victories that Mitt Romney needs this week

This week is Mitt Romney’s last chance. And as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has pointed out so brilliantly, the real debate in Denver today could well be between the two halves of Romney’s divided self:

Wednesday’s presidential debate promises sharp contrasts. One candidate wants to repeal Obamacare, one candidate invented it. One opposed the auto industry bailout, one takes credit for it. One doubts the scientific consensus about climate change, one believes in it. One wants to “voucherize” Medicare, one wants to save it. One dismisses nearly half of Americans as a bunch of moochers, and one claims to champion the struggling middle class. It promises to be an epic clash: Mitt Romney vs. Mitt Romney. Oh, and President Barack Obama will be there, too.

Some Democratic optimists are already treating Romney as a dead duck. By his own hand, mostly. That infamous “47%” video – how ironic that it was unearthed and handed over to Mother Jones by Jimmy Carter’s grandson James Carter III, who is now working as a researcher – has left an indelible mark. No surprise about that. It should be fatal to any presidential hopeful to be caught on camera saying that he could “never convince” nearly half of the American voting public to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Moreover, look at the historical stats, Cenk Uygur says in the Huffington Post. In the past 15 presidential contests the candidate who was ahead two weeks after the last party convention has gone on to win on Election Day. Well, it is now well over a fortnight since the Democratic Convention, and Obama remains ahead by two points in the national polls. Famously, no Republican contender has won the Presidency without taking Ohio – and one recent Columbus, Ohio poll has Barack Obama ahead by as much as nine points in that state.

Obama has not (yet) stretched his national lead to three points, which history also tells us tends to be the decisive margin that turns all of the arithmetic of the swing states and Electoral College tallies into something of an irrelevancy. This week though, Romney not only has to do well in the presidential debate in Denver. On Friday, the US monthly employment figures come out. If those job statistics are even reasonably good, Obama can enter the final stretch of the campaign claiming the economy under his stewardship is finally on the mend. Put that on top of a good debate performance – if there is one – and Obama would be virtually unstoppable. Yet if the job figures are bad – and assuming Romney can hold his ground, or better during the Denver debate – then those same job figures would allow the Republicans to finally get their campaign back where they want it, as a verdict on the man currently in the White House. Meaning: the debate outcome/Friday job stats must fall in tandem for Romney, if he is to stand a chance on Election Day.

Luckily, we have a figure for those Friday job stats that we can treat as a fairly definitive good news /bad news indicator. Here was how Clinton-era Labour Secretary and Berkeley UC academic Robert Reich was calling it a couple of days ago:

Rarely in their history has the monthly employment [survey] carried so much political significance. If the payroll survey is significantly more than 96,000 — the number of new jobs created in August — President Obama can credibly claim the job situation is improving. If significantly fewer than 96,000, Mitt Romney has the more credible claim that the economy isn’t improving.

For reasons that Reich also explains – ongoing crisis in Europe, some sharp dips in sectors of consumer spending, and a decline in the rate of savings – the likelihood is that the news on Friday (Saturday NZ time) will not be particularly good for Obama. It is not that the Republicans have a clue about how to fix this situation, which is a continuing hangover from the Global Financial Crisis that Romney would ‘fix” by perpetuating the policies that ushered in the crisis. However, that would be only a side issue if the Denver debate/US job figures combo enables the campaign to become refocussed on the failings of the White House incumbent.

If the debate is a draw and the job figures not drastic or not joyous enough either way….this campaign will drag on. It will then focus on what leading US poll analyst Nate Silver of the New York Times calls the ‘tipping point’ states that will decide the Electoral College outcome. And those states, Silver says, are currently Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Even in Virginia – which has been close all year – the averages of four polls taken in the last half of September now have Obama ahead by a handy 3.7% over Romney. In Florida, Obama was similarly ahead in the last half of September by 3% and in Ohio during the same time by an average of 5.5% over a spread of polls that include that nine pointer advantage he got in the Columbus Dispatch poll.

Can Romney re-set his campaign? Only if his performance in Denver can significantly exceed the rock bottom expectations he has created i.e. not falling over will be touted as victory by Fox News. And only if, in addition, those Friday job figures are going through the floorboards. It’s a hard ask. Eugene Robinson again:

For the umpteenth time, [Romney] has to introduce himself to the American people. He has to erase the impressions left by all the Mitt Romneys we met earlier — the clueless rich guy, the heartless private-equity baron who likes “being able to fire people,” the moderate who became a hard-line conservative and then became a little bit moderate again, kind of. And he has to reveal a coherent person, one whom voters can imagine as a leader.

The question, Robinson concludes, is whether such a coherent person exists.

Footnote: One of Romney’s attack lines on Obama today will undoubtedly be the miracles of economic growth that were allegedly wrought during the Reagan era, supposedly by Reagan’s passage of the so called Kemp-Roth round of tax cuts. Well, like so many aspects of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, this is really a myth – as Bruce Bartlett, one of his own key officials from that era has recently pointed out:

Republicans like to say that massive growth followed the Reagan tax cut. But average real GDP growth during Reagan’s eight years in the White House was only slightly above the rate of the previous eight years: 3.4 percent per year vs. 2.9 percent. The average unemployment rate was actually higher under Reagan than it was during the previous eight years: 7.5 percent vs. 6.6 percent.

Growth had, in fact, been quite robust in the Carter years 1976-78. What the Reagan tax cuts package did achieve – in unison with tight money supply actions by the Federal Reserve – was a dramatic cut in the high rates of inflation that Reagan had inherited. But in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, inflation is not a problem. As Bartlett says, lack of demand (i.e. deflation) is the real problem now. That’s one reason why Reaganomics in the US (and Rogernomics here) have nothing to offer as cures for our current malaise.