Campaigning in Illinois today, Mitt Romney had this to say about that occasionally important issue, the U.S. economy, reports Politico‘s Alexander Burns:

“I believe the economy is coming back, by the way,” Romney said. “We’ll see what happens. It’s had ups and downs. I think it’s finally coming back. The economy always comes back after a recession, of course. There’s never been one that we didn’t recover from. The problem is this one has been deeper than it needed to be and a slower recovery than it should have been, by virtue of the policies of this president. Almost everything he’s done has made it harder for this economy to recover.”

Now given his history of pre-primary gaffes, it’s possible Romney just forgot for a moment that the economy is on the brink of terminal disaster, and must be immediately rescued by a buttoned-down gent like Mitt who understands that deregulation, tax relief, and radical reductions in public spending are necessary to turn it around.

Or perhaps he’s just the first of the GOP candidates to look around the nearest corner and understand a new take on the economy is going to be necessary if the employment picture continues to improve. If so, it signals a different and much trickier message for the GOP, as noted by Swampland’s Adam Sorenson:

[A] sunnier economic outlook is calling into question who will have to make the difficult argument that the economy could have been better or worse if Barack Obama had not been elected in 2008. For most of his term, that burden has fallen to the President, who reacted to a stagnant recovery with constant reminders of the Bush years and what might have been. But the onus of this task isn’t clear anymore…

Republicans have long pointed out that “It could have been worse” makes for a lousy campaign slogan. “It could have been better” isn’t much of an improvement.

I’d go further, and note that an improving economic situation complicates an even more basic GOP desire to make the 2012 elections a referendum on how Americans feel about the direction of…well, everything. A choice between two alternative paths going forward is a vastly trickier task for a Republican Party whose agenda is just not that popular, particularly if it’s led by a presidential candidate who is just not that credible.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.