A Choice, Not a Referendum

I wondered yesterday if Mitt Romney was deliberately striking a new tone on the economy by noting that it was improving, or had just forgotten his the-economy-is-a-disaster-vote-for-change message.

According to Mark Z. Barabak and Paul West of the LA Times, Romney was indeed executing a pivot, not committing a gaffe:

Mitt Romney entered the presidential contest as Mr. Fix-It, saying his business know-how was precisely what could rescue the struggling economy from its deep and devastating slump….

But after months of steady job growth, improved consumer confidence and big gains on Wall Street, the economy seems in less dire need of fixing, and Romney has been forced to alter his message or risk seeming out of touch.

“I believe the economy’s coming back,” Romney said at a breakfast stop Monday in Springfield, where the former Massachusetts governor campaigned ahead of Tuesday’s Illinois primary.

But he gave absolutely no credit to President Obama — “the economy always comes back after recession” — and insisted the administration’s policies had made matters worse and the recovery slower than it should have been…..

[I]f the slow but steady improvement continues and Romney hangs on to become the GOP nominee, the choice presented to voters in the fall could rest on a pair of abstract arguments: one candidate saying he would have done better and the other insisting things could have been worse.

WaPo’s Greg Sargent draws attention to the fact that Romney strategist Stuart Stevens is quoted in the LAT article, discussing the new economic situation and its impact on the campaign’s message. So this truly is a pivot–and not just for Mitt, as reflected in a separate but parallel statement by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus suggesting (in defense of Rick Santorum) that the election would not be “about” unemployment rates, but “about freedom” and ObamaCare.

This is a really big deal, folks. Up until now, Democrats have endlessly worried about how to make this election revolve around a choice between two candidates, two parties, two agendas, and two sets of principles–instead of simply being an up-or-down referendum on life–particularly economic life–over the last four years. It looks like GOPers are already conceding the point, and trying to stake out the best possible ground for their side in a straight-up choice.

That could still change, of course, if the economy goes sharply south again, or even fails to steadily improve between now and November. But for the moment, I’d say this is the best strategic development for the Obama campaign since it became obvious the GOP field was going to be a mess.

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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.