In this Oct. 16, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
David Goldman/AP Photo

Imagine Romney’s first term was nearing its end right now

We couldn’t have known at the time how important the quote would turn out to be. About six months before Election Day 2012, Mitt Romney sat down with Mark Halperin, who asked, “Would you like to be more specific about what the unemployment rate would be like at the end of your first year?”
The Republican nominee conceded he couldn’t “predict precisely,” but Romney added, “I can tell you that over a period of four years, by virtue of the polices that we put in place, we can get the unemployment rate down to 6%, perhaps a little lower.”
At the time, the unemployment rate was 8.2%. Now, as we near what would have been the end of Romney’s first term if he’d won, the unemployment rate is 4.9% – far better than the GOP candidate’s projection for his own success.
I thought of this today reading Vox’s Ezra Klein’s counterfactual about 2016 politics if the 2012 election had gone the other way, specifically in light of the latest Census Bureau data.
Here’s a thought experiment. What if Mitt Romney had won in 2012? What if it was his economy that was seeing sub-5 percent unemployment, falling poverty, and the largest median wage gains since the Census Bureau began keeping records?
There would be parades in the streets. President Romney would be hailed as the second coming of Ronald Reagan – or maybe even better! Progressivism would be discredited. The fundamental wisdom of conservatism would be affirmed.
Is there any doubt that Ezra’s correct?
This is usually the point at which conservative readers email to remind me it’s folly to believe the president is responsible for the direction of the planet’s largest economy. It’s a perfectly fair argument.
But let’s not dismiss the political circumstances too quickly.
This week’s Census Bureau data was widely celebrated and for good reason: income growth last year was the fastest on record; poverty rates saw their largest one-year drop since 1968; and the number of Americans without health insurance dropped to the lowest point ever recorded in the United States. New York’s Jon Chait added soon after, “It is almost impossible to overstate how thoroughly this data nullifies the central charges made against the administration’s policies.”
Even if you’re inclined to dismiss the idea that a White House’s agenda is responsible for macroeconomic performance, part of the problem for Republicans in this scenario is that they made fairly specific predictions: the Recovery Act wouldn’t help end the Great Recession; President Obama’s auto rescue wouldn’t help the auto industry; the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t lower the uninsured rate; and the Obama administration’s broader agenda related to taxes, spending, and regulations would stifle incomes and make poverty worse.
Republicans made these predictions based on their unshakable ideological beliefs, which should create a real problem for conservatives interested in a little self-reflection: every economic prediction the GOP made about Obama’s policies was wrong. Not just a little off, either – Republicans got the entire picture backwards.
To Chait’s point, if it’s “almost impossible to overstate how thoroughly” Obama’s record “nullifies the central charges made against the administration’s policies,” it’s every bit as destructive to the central tenets to conservative assumptions about economic policy.
Looking at the latest data, it’s hard to deny the fact that if Romney had put together Obama’s results in his first term, he’d be hailed as a conquering hero worthy of Mt. Rushmore. Heading into the 2016 elections, the question wouldn’t be whether Romney would win, but how huge his margin of victory would be.
What’s more, conservatism would be celebrated as the only governing model that produces widespread prosperity.
But Romney lost and Obama delivered results Republicans said were impossible. Perhaps Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell could take a moment sometime over the next eight weeks to reflect on what they’d be saying right now if there were a GOP White House – while also explaining why and how the Republican Party has been so very wrong.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

Imagine Romney's first term was nearing its end right now