Ezra Klein absolutely nailed it yesterday in his assessment of what Mitt Romney needs to provide in the debates but can’t:

[H]e needs to do more than convince voters that the economy is bad at this very moment. He needs to convince them that the economy will be better if he’s elected president. And that means convincing them that he’s got a policy agenda capable of turning the economy around.

Which gets to Romney’s real challenge in the debates, which has also been his real difficulty throughout the campaign: He doesn’t have an appealing policy agenda capable of turning this thing around, and his party hasn’t given him the freedom to construct one.

Ezra goes on to discuss Romney’s lurch to the right during the primaries on taxes and the budget, positioning him far beyond the pale in terms of promoting fiscal policies that are both plausible and potentially popular. I’d add that Mitt’s ideological shift is all the more remarkable when you recall he was the preferred candidate of movement conservatives in 2008, before he repudiated much of his own record.

But the dirty little secret of the GOP at the moment is that it has to run a national campaign focused on unhappiness with the economy while advancing a policy agenda that has little or nothing to do with the economy, and in fact would almost certainly make the economy immediately worse. It hasn’t gotten much attention, but the Republican Party (including its presidential nominee) is committed to deflationary monetary policies, and austerity federal spending policies. Despite its occasional gestures in the direction of understanding the need for a more skilled work force, the GOP is also fully committed to the destruction of public education as we know it (or at least that’s how I would interpret the full-on, unrestricted voucher system Romney has proposed), and to fiscal policies that would almost certainly get the federal government out of the business of skills development within a decade. More generally, the Republican assault on the very concept of collective bargaining and its treatment of wages and benefits (not to mention regulations and corporate taxes) as nothing more than cost-boosting burdens on “wealth creators” harnesses the GOP to a concept of economic development that if it were effective would have long made Mississippi the nation’s economic dynamo.

Add in the fact that the Right has been promoting this same agenda (though not as radical a version of it) for decades, in all kinds of economic conditions, and you are driven to the unmistakable conclusion that all the talk about reviving the economy is just a pretext for achieving the permanent goals of the conservative movement. And that’s without even looking at its radical cultural agenda, which matters more to a big chunk of Romney foot soldiers than anything to do with the economy (indeed, their favorite candidate, Rick Santorum, argued that “strengthening traditional families” via bans on abortion–including many forms of what most of us consider contraception–and same-sex marriage was at all times and in all places the only way to provide long-term prosperity).

So Romney’s struggle to articulate an economic agenda while running a campaign that is supposedly about nothing else is no accident. And thus he will be driven to evasions and lies. It’s all he’s really got.

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.