When Mitt Romney blurted out the other day that “even Jimmy Carter” would have approved the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, he invited some pretty pointed criticism (especially, as we noted here, from James Fallows) for treating the 39th president as no more than a symbol of weakness. But it seemed a passing reference to many.

But now today in a campaign rally in Northern Virginia, Romney seems to have Jimmy Carter on the brain, this time in the context of domestic issues, as Politico‘s Reid Epstein reports:

Romney, who has built his campaign pitch around the idea that Americans remember better economic times, sought to draw a contrast between the current economy and the one during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

“It was the most anti-small business administration I’ve seen probably since Carter,” he said. “Who would’ve guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good ol’ days, you know?

So what’s up with this? Republicans routinely scold Obama for any hint of blaming George W. Bush for the state of the economy or of the federal budget. Jimmy Carter left office well over thirty years ago, and like most ex-presidents, built a generally positive reputation, though one that has suffered recently (yet is still in positive territory) thanks to some highly controversial foreign-policy statements. Why is Mitt Romney running against Jimmy Carter?

For one thing, it should be remembered that Romney is still in the mode of trying to reassure GOP conservatives that he’s “one of them.” Carter was vanquished by Ronald Reagan, so the identification of Obama with Carter creates a framework where MItt is the new St. Ronnie. The parallels were drawn most directly by Romney in a March WaPo op-ed about how he’d deal with Iran, in which he draws upon Reagan’s behavior towards the mullahs as though quoting from Holy Scripture. Going a tad deeper, it’s not just a matter of creating warm and fuzzy associations with conservatives’ favorite president since Calvin Coolidge: Reagan “proved” that the Republican Party could win not only despite because of taking a decisive conservative turn. That’s precisely what they’ve been trying to do since Election Day 2008.

But I suspect the main reason for bringing up Carter and Reagan is a message to the media: the appropriate precedent for this election is 1980. Then, as now, you had an incumbent Democratic president with a poor economy who tried to make the election something other than a straight referendum on his record. It didn’t work, and it won’t work for Obama, either, so the media should ignore all of the incumbent’s efforts to make the election a choice of “two futures” and instead stare monomaniacally at the economic indicators and Obama’s job approval rating, even if Mitt’s out there saying crazy things to fire up his conservative “base.”

This became most apparent immediately after Obama’s tough speech last month to the newspaper editors association blasting Paul Ryan’s budget and suggesting that the general election campaign “will probably have the biggest contrast that we’ve seen maybe since the Johnson-Goldwater election.” Romney immediately went on Fox News and challenged that parallel:

“I think the contrast is better — not so much Goldwater and Johnson — but more Carter and Reagan.

I think this president represents a throw-back to the old style Democrats of the past — big government, welfare state Democrats, and that most Democrats moved away from that.

Most of the arguments we’ll hear from the two campaigns about historical precedents for this election will continue to more or less involve Democrats talking about 1964 and Republicans talking about 1980, even if it winds up looking more like 2004. But for Mitt, it’s a big-time two-fer: comparing Obama to Carter and Reagan to himself is sweet music to the ears of conservatives, and it’s very important to keep telling the people covering this campaign that all he needs to do to win is to cross a low threshold of credibility and let the economy drag Obama down.

Ed Kilgore

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.