The Obama-Romney Fight Begins on Twitter

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Axelrod. Fehrnstrom. Oh, it's on. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Matt Rourke/AP

Yesterday night the Republicans debated in South Carolina, but the main event may have taken place earlier in the day, when the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns engaged in direct fire on Twitter. It was a fairly prosaic exchange – no threats, no name-calling, no releases of devastating new oppo research – but its ordinariness made it useful as a guide. Here was a sign that the main argument of the campaign will continue to be the same argument that the parties have been having for the last three years.

The skirmish began when Romney’s campaign tweeted: “More Americans have lost their jobs under @BarackObama than any president in modern history.”

David Axelrod replied: "A picture's worth a thousand misleading words."

… and linked to a chart showing that job losses began under George W. Bush’s term and abated soon after Obama took office.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney, hit back: "Sometimes you don't need a picture to tell a story. The numbers speak for themselves — 1.7 million jobs lost under Obama."

To which Axelrod responded, in a flurry of tweets:

How is it that Mitt has nothing to say in the six months BEFORE Obama took office, when U.S. was losing nearly 4m jobs?

Nearly 4m jobs lost in six months before Obama took office. Yet Mitt said policies of that admin had "shored up our economy."

Fehrnstrom repeated himself:

Obama is poised to be first president in history to end term with a net job loss. That is a fact. Can’t keep blaming Bush.

And then Axelrod replied once more:

Not blame. Just asking why Mitt was mute as we lost 4m jobs in last 6 mos of last admin; now wants to go back to same policies?

Here we have the basic debate of the Obama presidency. The Republican argument is that things are bad and it’s Obama’s fault. It’s a simple, intuitive claim that requires no elaboration. Indeed, any elaboration actually weakens it — any serious argument has to concede that Obama inherited an economy plunging downward, that holding his policies accountable for the damage resulting from a crisis he inherited is wildly unrealistic, and thus that any serious indictment has to fall back to the far softer claim that he merely could have done better.

Obama doesn’t have a simple and straightforward reply. His complicated answer is reflected in Axelrod’s argumentation: The crisis began under Bush, the direction of the economy has improved dramatically since, and Republicans want to return to the Bush’s administration’s policies. Fehrnstrom’s reply to all this is to keep pointing, over and over, to the fact that things are bad. It’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault. That’s the argument Romney will drive home until November, and that argument usually prevails when an incumbent president is presiding over a bad economy.

Because it’s so politically hard to win an argument by contextualizing hard times, the most important of Axelrod’s replies is that Romney wants to return to Bush’s policies. Every attack on Romney will funnel itself into that stream of argument. Romney’s tenure at Bain frames, his personal finances (watch if he’s forced to release his tax returns), his tax plan, his desire to repeal Dodd-Frank – all these will support the picture of Romney as a return to Bush-era plutocracy.

After he has secured the nomination, Romney will probably make some effort to differentiate himself from Bush-era Republicanomics. Even so, the main thrust of his campaign will continue to be pointing at the economic numbers and blaming Obama.