Romney’s Closing Argument: Threats Are Made

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The passive voice is a wonderful tool for obscuring the subject of a sentence. (The most classic example of this is the pseudo-admission, employed by numerous guilty politicians, “Mistakes were made.”) In his closing argument today, Mitt Romney unveiled the passive voice to argue why President Obama’s reelection would portend terrible things. Pay close attention, English teachers: “The debt ceiling will come up again, and shutdown and default will be threatened, chilling the economy.”

Shutdown and default will be threatened, you say? By who, exactly? Well, by the Republicans in Congress, of course.

You can see why Romney would omit this detail from his closing pitch. Since taking control of the House of representatives in 2011, Republicans have engaged in a de facto campaign of economic sabotage. They abandoned their previous belief, shared with the entire macroeconomic forecasting field, that short-term deficit reduction harms a depressed economy. They turned the debt ceiling vote, once an opportunity for mere posturing, into a hostage crisis threatening dire economic consequences worldwide.

David Frum joked last spring that their argument was “Vote Republican. It's too dangerous to leave us in opposition.” And now this is the Republican candidate’s actual argument! Except he omits the “us” via the passive voice. Also amazingly, the argument Frum once used as a cutting joke (at least I think) is now part of his actual endorsement of Romney:

The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won't reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP - and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment. A Romney election will at least discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013.

It’s worth recalling that George W. Bush made a similar argument to get himself elected in 2000. The House Republicans had turned Washington into an ungodly mess, shutting down the government, conducting endless witch hunts, culminating in a wildly unpopular crusade to impeach Bill Clinton. Bush came along as the healer who would put an end to the ugliness. At the end of the 2000 campaign, a Bush adviser credited the impeachment crusade with allowing Bush to position himself this way (“'There are 13 people who are responsible for where we are now,' a Bush adviser says. 'They are the House impeachment managers.'”)

In a sense, this argument was true. When Bush took office, House Republicans abandoned their fanatical opposition and became a law-passing machine working in lockstep with a Republican president. The dynamic is worth keeping in mind when evaluating another popular promise Romney is making in his closing argument: “I won't spend my effort trying to pass partisan legislation unrelated to economic growth.”

Here Romney again has his finger on the pulse of the undecided voter. Most voters in the center don’t know much about the substance of the issues being debated. They just dislike the arguments, believe the parties ought to get along, and think this would lead to a better economy. Romney is catering to them. The most potent attack on Obamacare was not ideological but that it distracted Obama from the economy.

But his promise not to pursue “partisan legislation” would come as a huge shock to his Republican supporters. It would also come as a shock to his own transition team, which is reportedly planning an early vote to repeal Obamacare. If passing health-care reform was unrelated to economic growth, then repealing it is, also.

But Romney is making promises to the center his base does not want or expect him to fulfill. And that is the downside of his true-but-outrageous argument about the crazy House Republicans. The way he will get them to stop launching kamikaze attacks on the economy and the system of government is to give them what they want, just as Bush did.