I noticed the following item in First Read:
*** Team Romney’s double standard? If you’ve been following this presidential contest over the past year, you know Mitt Romney’s central argument against Obama: The president has presided over a lackluster economy where there have been too many job losses and where recovery has been too slow. But the Obama campaign has pounced on Team Romney’s explanation for the relatively weak job growth in Massachusetts (47th out of 50 states) during Romney’s tenure as governor. On FOX over the weekend, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said: “You take the first year which is a low base year when the governor came in and took office because it was 50th in job creation out of all of the states dead last, and moved it to 30th by the fourth year and a net job creation of 40,000 jobs… So, they are bringing down the gains of his fourth year in office which shows the real impact of his policies and diluting it with the first year in office when came into office and it was 50th in job creation.” In other words, Gillespie said, don’t count Romney’s first year; count his last. The Obama camp is up with a video highlighting what they say is this double standard.
Ed Gillespie is suggesting that observers pay attention to the trend over Romney’s tenure. This seems like a fairly banal observation. Notice, however, that the Obama campaign has favorably cited Rex Nutting’s column “Obama’s spending never happened,” which essentially claims that the Obama administration shouldn’t be held responsible for spending that occurred before October of 2009, as Keith Hennessey explains. (Yet the Obama administration has, somewhat confusingly, also sought credit for its fiscal stimulus measures passed long before then.) Per Nutting’s column, the Obama administration has done this to highlight the trend, i.e., year-on-year spending growth since October of 2009.
So should we pay attention to the trend or not? If anything, the Romney campaign actually needs that first year, just as the Obama administration actually needs that first year, to draw an effective contrast. One importance difference is that the Obama administration, as has been exhaustively explained, actually had a fairly significant impact on FY 2009 spending, for a variety of reasons relating to the political impasse that had occurred during the lame-duck session that followed Barack Obama’s presidential victory. Romney, in contrast, had an ambiguous impact on broad economic conditions in his state that first year, just as Barack Obama had an ambiguous impact on broad economic conditions in the U.S. during the first year of his presidency. (Per Jim Manzi, I would argue that the impact has been ambiguous for all years for all mayors, governors, and presidents. Causal density is extremely high, which is why it’s a shame that these comparisons are the central currency of our politics. The president was obviously willing to deploy arguments of this kind when it helped him, and his rivals are eager to do the same when it does not.)
The Obama campaign should be cautious about embracing this critique. Consider Jim Manzi’s discussion of Larry Bartels work on presidential partisanship and inequality in Uncontrolled:
Consider a couple of the most important simplifying assumptions Bartels makes here.
First is the assumption that presidential actions affect income distributions for only one year (other than the simple trickle-down effect of growth in incomes at the 95th percentile on lower percentiles in subsequent years). There are plausible long-term causal mechanisms that could have almost no effect for years, but then have large effects only in much later periods—most obviously including appointments to the Supreme Court and Federal Reserve, but also including everything from negotiating hard-to-reverse treaties to subtle changes in attitudes created by the bully pulpit. Did Reagan’s effects on the change in distribution of incomes in America really end in 1989?
We saw one example of Reagan’s lasting effects on the broader economy in David Autor’s paper on the SSDI program.
Now, the Obama campaign clearly wants attribute weak job creation to Bush-era policies. The Romney campaign does not want to let President Obama get away with that. Fair enough — this is a potential vulnerability for Romney. But does the Obama campaign have as favorable a trend to point to as Romney does when it comes to his gubernatorial record, during which time employment levels markedly improved? Job growth has indeed improved, but it appears to have oscillated back and forth and to have stalled.
What we see here is that the waters have been muddied. The Obama campaign attempted to launch an effective attack against Romney’s tenure as governor. The Romney campaign made a plausible argument as to why this attack is misleading. Now the Obama campaign is claiming that the Romney campaign is being hypocritical. What does this mean? It means that the effectiveness of the attack has been dulled, and that the Obama campaign is scrambling.
Next we may well see attacks on Mitt Romney’s hair, the fact that he speaks French fluently, the fact that he owns multiple automobiles which he keeps in more than one location, and perhaps questions about the intensity of his religious convictions.