As Republicans prepare in Tampa for their convention to at last get underway, the mood of the party is vastly different from four years ago.
On the day John McCain delivered his acceptance speech to the St. Paul convention, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the GOP was “a party that doubts itself.” There were many causes for lack of self-confidence. But none was so corrosive as the failure of spending restraint in Republican congresses and the Bush Administration from 2001 to 2006.
Social conservatives felt with good reason that the Bush Administration had gone to bat for the issues they cared about. From the top down, the administration was sincerely committed to what is sometimes termed the family agenda and was effective at pursuing it.
National security conservatives were generally on board with Mr. Bush’s prosecution of the War on Terror, particularly after the late 2006 announcement of the surge in Iraq ended a period of corrosive passivity.
But federal spending and the size and scope of government were different matters. The late Clinton years’ budget surpluses and declining federal debt had created new expectations about the fiscal management of the government. New standards made even less tolerable the jump up in domestic spending, not to mention the failure after much fanfare to address the erosion of Social Security’s solvency. The financial crisis was still to come, but once secure elements of the GOP’s base were already drifting away when the party met in Minnesota.
The Obama Team effectively played on that disillusionment in the fall, and of course there was the Democrat’s calm, focused bearing when the housing bubble burst compared to Senator McCain’s overwrought response. But even in August, those who had once trusted the GOP on economics and restraint of government were in doubt and drift.
Things are very different in Tampa today.
A lot of it has to do with the performance of the Obama administration. Over the last three and a half years, trillion-dollar bailouts, stimulus programs, deficits and debt increases have tumbled out of the White House one after another. The president has assured us that this unprecedented spending was the price of recovery. But if so, the country feels cheated. For when the merchandise was delivered and the box opened, no recovery was inside. The proportion of adult Americans with jobs today is lower than the day the president took office.
So along comes Mitt Romney.
In American history, no nominee of either party has ever had a better claim on knowing first hand how job creation works in America or on mastery of the management skills needed to fix the government’s spending and unfunded entitlement crises. He brings the right experience and abilities to the national table at the right time.
Pundits have been telling us that the former Massachusetts governor should downplay the Paul Ryanesque emphasis on the controlling budget in favor of more talk about jobs and growth.
But as a Rasmussen poll (http://tinyurl.com/cqa62f2 ) released last week found, a solid plurality of likely voters (48%) feels cuts in federal spending help the economy compared to only about half as many (25%) who feel they hurt. The same poll found that 53% view tax cuts as good for the economy compared to only 16% who say they hurt.
In other words, not only on the president’s record, but on what to do to fix the economy, Governor Romney is perfectly placed for reclaiming the GOP mantle as the place to fix, in Mr. Obama’s phrase, “this mess we’re in.”
I met last week with a senior conservative strategist, one of the shrewdest men in Washington. We talked about the Democrats’ Mediscare tactics. He reflected that the Obama team has made a major mistake in going after Romney and Ryan as they have. “The elderly today aren’t the same people as twenty years ago,” he noted. It was Eisenhower, the 70’s stagflation, Carter’s ineptness and the Reagan recovery that shaped them, not the New Deal. Their fear is not that Medicare and Social Security won’t be there for them. They fear for their children – and they want the programs fixed, now.
The Administration is making exactly the same mistake with its frenzied attacks on Mr. Romney’s wealth and his supposedly heartless focus on spending. This isn’t the 1930s, or even the ‘50s. Americans have different economic views and priorities today – and Mitt Romney fits those expectations very well.
So as it convenes in Tampa, the Republican Party is feeling a confidence and energy that were missing in 2008 in Minnesota.
Let the campaign begin.