GOP Campaign Strategy: Can’t Talk About the Economy? Better Talk About the Economy.

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With economic confidence perking up a bit, and Obama’s poll numbers following, Republicans are beginning to ponder the possibility of an election season in which voters don’t feel the country is plunging toward ruin. The conundrum then, as I wrote a little while back, is what Republican candidates can talk about in a rosier world.

My conclusion last week: few good options, and in the end, “Romney will probably continue to talk about the economy no matter what happens. His chances, and Obama’s, hinge more on the realities of the recovery than any campaign narrative. If the economy falters, Romney’s message and his candidacy will have a very good chance to break through. If the recovery roars to life, they probably won’t.”

AEI’s James Pethokoukis takes a crack at this question today, offering five ways “Republicans can win even if the economy keeps improving.” And they’re all pretty much versions of the same economic messages conservatives have been discussing for months. (In Pethokoukis’ words this list is “more targeted and focused.”)

His first idea: The economy is “better but not nearly good enough.” This is pretty self explanatory. The U.S. isn’t on track to return to normal employment for another decade, etc. etc., and in absolute terms, the recovery would have to be downright miraculous to drag the economy entirely out of the dumpster by November. The problem with this line of argument is that voters historically don’t care about absolutes. They care whether things are moving in the right direction, and that’s what we’re beginning to see, regardless of the long climb ahead out of Great Recession Valley.

Point two: “Obama’s policies don’t deserve much, if any, credit for the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression,” also known as “the stimulus didn’t work” or “recoveries happen on their own” argument. The factual accuracy of this claim aside, its political effectiveness is dubious. Voters tend to credit incumbents when things go well and blame them when things go wrong. If the economy were tanking, Obama would use the classic counter-factual argument–what I did worked to a degree and this mess would be a lot worse if I hadn’t acted–but it too would count for very little.

“Too much debt!” is Pethokoukis’ next idea. The problem here is more straightforward: Voters just don’t care about this as much as they do about the economy. There is also absolutely nothing new about this argument; Republicans have been making it consistently since before the midterms. Next: Health care costs, entitlement spending, big banks and the tax code are out of control. This was all the case before Obama took office and, while the President and Republicans can argue about how much progress he made on these issues, the whole thing probably just falls under the broader category of whether Obama policies worked or not (see point two) for most voters.

Finally Pethokoukis hits on “crony capitalism,” the idea that Obama is picking winners in the private sector with the whiff of corruption all around him. Even when you ignore the hyperbolic framing–comparing Washington’s loan guarantees to Beijing’s planned economy is outlandish–this probably hits closest to home. Obama’s first re-election ad, after all, was essentially a defense of Solyndra. But it’s a fairly narrow issue and one that Pethokoukis brings back to “economic freedom.”

Yes, it all comes back to the generic economic argument. Which is precisely the reason it’s hard to picture this election hinging on anything else.