The Debate Question Mitt Can’t Answer

We’ve heard repeatedly that Team Romney has developed and honed some “zingers” for tomorrow night’s first candidate debate. Since Mitt is not exactly a natural comedian, you’d have to figure said “zingers” are likely to be cleverly loaded presentations of his stock attacks on the president, along the lines of his convention speech pitch to 2008 Obama voters that “the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

But you also have to figure Obama has some planned “zingers,” too, and in case it hasn’t occurred to his people, I’d strongly urge that one of them be this: “Governor Romney, how exactly do your economic policies differ from those of George W. Bush?”

As First Read notes today, this is a question Romney would really struggle to answer. Conservatives have managed to convince themselves over the last four years or so that Bush went wrong by failing to control federal spending, but when you look an inch under that assertion (dubious in itself, since most of the people retroactively criticizing W. had few problems with his fiscal record when they were lionizing him as a world-historical colossus spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East), it’s the more popular aspects of Bush’s domestic agenda–notably the addition of an Rx drug benefit to Medicare–that they now excoriate as betrayals of conservative principle.

Insofar as Romney is unlikely to distinguish himself from Bush by coming right out and saying that he and his party are committed to a wholesale assault on the New Deal and Great Society programs (though a follow-up question asking him to repeat his commitment to sign the Ryan Budget if it passes Congress would provide some useful information), I’d guess he’d make vague noises about dealing with the budget deficit and then just repeat his talking points on his alleged “five-point plan for jobs and growth.” But the evasion will provide plenty of good ammunition for the Obama campaign down the stretch, even if Mitt doesn’t stammer and sweat.

UPDATE: If you’re having trouble remembering W.’s economic policies, it’s a good time to subscribe to the Washington Monthly and score a free copy of the new ebook: Elephant in the Room: Washington in the Bush Years.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.