President Obama’s gaffe about the private sector doing fine may have (according to one unhinged liberal) had the helpful effect of re-centering the debate over the size of government. Obama has labored under the general and false presumption that he vastly expanded government. Romney has taken to lashing him for his proposal to help state and local governments rehire many of the teachers, police officers, and firefighters they have had to lay off. This has placed Romney in the odd position of both opposing the hiring of popular government workers and defending the status quo, while Obama proposes alternatives — the opposite of what Romney wants.
You can see this dynamic play out as Romney slowly tries to back away from his position. Asked this morning on Fox & Friends about Obama’s attack on Romney for opposing aid to state and local governments to rehire laid off employees, Romney said:
Well, that's a very strange accusation. Of course, teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level and also by states. The federal government doesn't pay for teachers, firefighters or policemen. So obviously that's completely absurd.
"[Obama's] got a new idea, though, and that is to have another stimulus and to have the federal government send money to try and bail out cities and states. It didn't work the first time. It certainly wouldn't work the second time."
You can see Romney trying various gambits to escape the logic of his position. First he says the federal government “doesn’t” pay for the cost of hiring those workers. That’s generally true, though in a massive economic crisis, state and local governments see their revenues collapse and their costs rise. Since they have to balance their budget and the federal government doesn’t, giving them temporary aid makes sense so that state and local government cutbacks don’t worsen the economic crisis. Romney wants to essentially push the question out of bounds — borrowing money to hire back cops and teachers may sound nice, but the government can’t do it, so fuggedaboutit. But, of course, the federal government obviously can borrow money to help strapped state and local governments.
The stimulus did this to some degree, though not enough to keep state and local governments from pretty large-scale layoffs. Then Romney launches into his second argument, which is that we tried this gambit and “it didn’t work.” That’s a safer gambit for him — he’s subsuming the popular ideas in the unpopular rubric of “stimulus.”
Both of Romney’s rhetorical evasions, though, demonstrate that the current debate has maneuvered him onto unpopular terrain. Romney wants to force Obama to defend the status quo — even (and especially) elements of the status quo forced on him by Republicans in Washington. Here, though, he’s joined himself with the Republican Congress and is defending the status quo against a popular plan to help turn around the economy. This is an argument Obama would do well to make a central theme of the campaign.