Can Romney Call Bush a Liberal?

I suggested yesterday that the debate question Mitt Romney really can’t convincingly answer is: ““Governor Romney, how exactly do your economic policies differ from those of George W. Bush?”

At Politico today, Jonathan Martin devotes an article to Mitt’s “George W. Bush problem,” and seems to think it’s easily solvable so long as Romney is willing to criticize a fellow-Republican. Here’s the premise Martin sets up:

Polling suggests that such a strategy of “triangulation,” as it was termed when Bill Clinton sought to separate himself from his own party and the opposition, isn’t an option but a necessity: 62 percent of self-described moderates said that they blamed Bush and the Republicans for the country’s economic troubles while just 30 percent of the same voters faulted Obama and the Democrats, according to a CNN poll last month.

But then watch the sleight-of-hand in the very next sentence:

Indicting both parties for America’s fiscal problems would help Romney detach himself from Bush and buy a measure of credibility with voters fed up with Washington. And given the remorse many conservatives have about the spending that took place under the last administration and the GOP base’s immense desire to oust Obama, it seems unlikely that Romney would lose many Republican loyalists in the course of trying to appeal to swing voters.

Notice that “economic problems” suddenly became “fiscal problems”? Sure, Romney is on very safe ground with conservatives if he faults W. for too much spending; that’s the critique they’ve all implicitly and often explicitly made as the prime example of how Bush “betrayed conservative principles.” But that’s only a convincing “separation” from Bush if you buy the idea that the cause of the economic disaster was too much federal spending. And while Americans as a whole have shown themselves lukewarm towards the once-bipartisan proposition that Keynesian fiscal stimulus is the right policy to pursue during a recession, there’s little evidence that outside the Republican base there’s much support for the claim that fiscal austerity is the right answer, either, or that budget deficits somehow “caused” the Great Recession.

Martin goes on to quote a bunch of conservatives happily agreeing with the idea that Mitt should blast Bush (and perhaps the “Republican establishment”) for complicity in building up the Godless Welfare State. Trouble is, the Godless Welfare State–including W.’s distinctive contribution, the Medicare prescription drug benefit–is mighty popular, as Republicans themselves acknowledge by all their demagoguing on Obama’s alleged “Medicare cuts.”

Sorry, but I don’t think Mitt can “separate himself” from W.’s “economic policies” just by saying he’d be tougher on domestic spending. There are tax policies and specific budget priorities and banking policies and regulatory policies that compose most of what are generally considered to represent “economic policy.” And Jon Chait is absolutely right in pointing this out today: Republican economic policies, most notably the obsession with top-end and corporate tax cuts, just aren’t popular. A meaner, more right-wing version of Bushonomics isn’t going to change that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.