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The Republicans' mixed message on the economy

Does the GOP want credit for a strong economy or does it want to condemn a weak recovery? For now, they want to do both - at the same time.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (C) speaks at the annual RNC winter meeting Jan. 24, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (C) speaks at the annual RNC winter meeting Jan. 24, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he's very likely to spend some time touting the improved economic conditions, and he'll have quite a bit of good news to share -- on nearly every front, the U.S. economy hasn't looked this good in several years. Indeed, given global conditions, the American economy is now the envy of the world.
And that leaves Republicans with an awkward task. At this point, the GOP's recent rhetoric -- Obama is destroying the economy through health care reform, taxes, and regulations -- has been completely discredited. This morning on Fox News, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus presented an entirely different pitch.

"Without getting into too many of the specifics on policy, as chairman of the party, but I think that sure some loopholes can be closed [through tax reform]. But the reality is, is that none of that dinking and dunking [1] is going to change anything about the trajectory of the economy [2], unless you take a serious look at the overall tax code [3], simplify it, do some fairly significant things to the code and do the types of things that Paul Ryan has been delivering to the Senate for the last five years [4]. "Now they'll have that chance as chairman of the Ways and Means [Committee] in order to get the economy turned around [5]. We've got a -- the president's going to try to tell people that Americans aren't struggling and the economy's great [6]. We've got the worst labor participation rate since Jimmy Carter's been president [7]."

I took the liberty of adding these annotation notes because Reince Priebus' message needs some work. Let's unwrap the RNC chairman's take, because we're likely to be hearing more of it:
[1] I don't know what "dinking" means.
[2] The "trajectory of the economy" is actually quite good, so good in fact that Republicans have begun looking for ways to take credit for the White House's economic accomplishments.
[3] Tax reform is a worthwhile endeavor, but economic growth is not dependent on its completion. That said, if Priebus is correct that tax reform is necessary for a stronger recovery, his party has some explaining to do -- House Republican leaders deliberately killed tax reform early last year.
[4] If the RNC is still embracing Paul Ryan's blueprint, this only helps further commit the party to eliminating Medicare and slashing taxes on the rich in the hopes that prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else.
[5] According to some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, the economy has already turned around.
[6] Actually, Priebus has this backwards. Obama is constantly talking about those who haven't yet benefited from the economic recovery -- it's one of the reasons the president is likely to talk tonight about a variety of new initiatives intended to bolster middle-class families.
[7] I'm increasingly convinced Republican officials keep referencing the labor-force participation rate without actually learning what it is. As we've discussed before, the figure combines all of the Americans with jobs, adds those currently looking for jobs, and divides the total by the size of the population. Has the labor-force participation rate fallen in recent years? Yes. But in reality, the rate has been declining steadily for over a decade, largely as a result of the growing population of seniors retiring and leaving the workforce. For the RNC chairman to suggest this is some kind of Obama-related controversy is misguided. [Update: Nancy LeTourneau did a nice job exploring this in a Washington Monthly piece over the weekend.]
That said, aside from all of these errors, Priebus' take on economic policy is just fine.