In case the media circus surrounding Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina yesterday caused you to miss Laura Ingraham's Thursday's radio interview with Mitt Romney, here's a chance to catch up. It's a remarkable glimpse of the dilemma facing the Right today, regardless of its eventual nominee. I transcripted the full text of the most interesting exchange (emphasis mine):
INGRAHAM: Governor, the President and the Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury have said that, look, the economy is getting better, it's creating jobs month to month, it's not growing as fast as anyone wants but it's getting better. You've also noted that there are signs of improvement on the horizon in the economy. How do you answer the President's argument that the economy is getting better in a general election campaign if you yourself are saying that it's getting better?
ROMNEY: Well of course it's getting better. The economy always gets better after a recession. There's always a recovery. There's never been a time anywhere in the world where an economy has never recovered. The question is, has it recovered by virtue of something the President's done, or has he delayed the recovery and made it more painful, and the latter is of course the truth.
The President's policies have made this recession deeper, and it made the recovery more tepid and difficult on the American people. This is the worst recovery we've seen from a recession since Hoover. And President Obama wants to take credit for things getting better. He in fact has made things worse. He's made this recovery take much longer.
But will our economy get better some day? Of course it will. And it will not be thanks to President Obama, it will be in spite of President Obama, and that's of course the message we have to give. If people think the right course for improving an economy is to massively expand debt and the federal government, why they can vote for Barrack Obama. But we know better.
INGRAHAM: But isn't it a hard argument to make if you're saying, like, OK, he inherited this recession, and he took a bunch of steps to try to turn the economy around, and now we're seeing some more jobs, but vote against him anyway? Isn't that a hard argument to make? Is that a stark enough contrast?
ROMNEY: Well, do you have a better one, Laura? (laughs) It just happens to be the truth. (laughs)
We're going to see the numbers in terms of how the economy does. It's very possible, by the way, that the economy will go into a decline again. I mean it's a... I can't tell you that I can predict that it's going to get better, but I think that ... at some point it's going to get better. But I don't think President Obama's helping it. He's been far less effective than he should have been at turning the economy around. I think if we'd elected John McCain we'd be in a much better position today. But do I think that the economy will get better at some point? Yeah. But you know by November of 2012 we'll see if it's gotten better or not.
The key for me is that if you look at what's happened to American employment, the reason that our unemployment rate has come down is because of the number of people who've dropped out of the base of workable, uh, the workforce. And him taking credit for people becoming so desperate that they drop out of the workforce altogether is a very weak position from which he'll be campaigning.
After months of effectively blaming the recession on Obama and "holding him accountable" for the nation's miseries, Republicans are now faced with an increasingly bleak landscape. An improving job market. Surprising growth in the manufacturing sector. Unemployment claims at a four-year low. "Twenty-two consecutive months of private-sector job growth," a White House figure I can't replicate from BLS data, but even its less-sexy alternate isn't bad: job growth for the past 15 consecutive months, and 18 out of the last 22. We added 1.6 million jobs in 2011, and the unemployment rate dropped from 9.1 to 8.5.
To make matters worse for the GOP, despite its hypnotic drumbeat of blaming Obama for everything, the public has consistently continued to acknowledge that our current economic conditions are something the President inheirited, rather than the result of his policies.
The Republican scorched-earth policy in 2010-11 succeeded in limiting the speed of the recovery and damaging Obama's approval ratings (though, interestingly enough, not his favorability ratings), but at an appalling high cost to the nation and the public's view of the GOP as a whole.
And now, after all of this, the economy is improving, the Republican primary season has produced nothing but the prospect of a protracted fight between two unpopular candidates, Occupy Wall Street shifted the national discussion from debt to income inequality, and more than 1 million people in Wisconsin have signed petitions to recall their Republican governor. Reince Priebus must be quietly losing his mind.
After framing 2012 as an economic question, the crisis for the GOP is that they can't publicly cheer against the economy, and the economic data is improving to the point that even their hyper-partisan media supporters can't ignore it. So while they'll cross their fingers and hope for bad news in the coming months, what do they do in the meantime? Based on Romney's response, perhaps they'll draw on a discordant note from the otherwise positive November 2011 jobs report: that the improvement was an accounting trick based on discouraged workers leaving the workforce.
That's not an entirely incorrect observation. Discouraged workers do drop out of the market, and the ratio of job openings to job-seekers remains above 4-to-1 for the third consecutive year. It's a tough recovery, following the worst recession since the Great Depression, which is why getting this stuff right is important.
But the bottom line on Romney's claim that "the reason that our unemployment rate came down is because of the number of people who have dropped out of... the workforce" is that he's flat wrong. The size of that workforce -- the number of Americans who are counted as employed or looking for work -- grew in 2011. Yes, there were month-to-month fluctuations, like the drop emphasized by Republicans in the controversial November jobs report, but the workforce grew again in December, even as the unemployment rate dropped for the fourth consecutive month.
By the Bureau of Labor Statistics' numbers, the Civilian Labor Force stood at 153,250,000 Americans in January 2011. By the end of December, that figure had risen to 153,887,000. That's an increase of 637,000 people. And despite having to include all those new people in the pool of workers, the national unemployment rate dropped by 0.6 percent.
But it gets worse for the GOP.
Republicans have spent three years dismissing out-of-hand any Democratic assessments of federal policies that included estimates of "jobs saved," instead favoring absolute numbers framed from their least-flattering perspective. By opening their critique to say that "Things are improving, but we would have done better," and moving away from their context-free assault on the President's economic numbers, they are moving onto a battefield in which the ground favors the Democrats.
This doesn't mean Obama wins in the fall. But it does mean the planets are re-aligning.