There was a lot of agreement in Wednesday evening’s Republican debate hosted by MSNBC and Politico at the Reagan Presidential Library: Ronald Reagan is awesome and would have agreed with everything Republicans say today, there is something wrong with Barack Obama’s foreign policy even if we’re not sure what it is, the Affordable Care Act is a massive imposition by government on the will of the people who elected it well aware that they were running on a promise to enact healthcare reform.
The only major back and forth occurred around a curiously meaningless debate: which governor on stage presided over the most job growth and who would create the most jobs as president. For a party that claims government does nothing as well as the private sector and that efforts to improve society are a fools errand, it’s an odd obsession. If you believe, as Mitt Romney has repeatedly asserted, that it is business rather than government that creates jobs then how can you argue that you will do so as president?
In fact, Romney went so far as to say, “If I’d spent my career in government I wouldn’t be running for president,” because then he wouldn’t know how to create jobs. It was an apparent jab at Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been in politics for nearly three decades and has no major private sector experience. Romney walked the claim back when moderator Brian Wiliams asked if he was saying a career politician is unqualified for the White House. Thankfully pundits seem disinclined to claim Romney showed weakness, as they bizarrely insisted Tim Pawlenty did in his confrontation with Romney at the first Republican debate.
Perry, a career politician if ever there was one, responded by noting that Massachusetts had the forty-seventh best job growth rate among the states while Romney was governor, a fact that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman also gleefully cited. Huntsman was even more smug when boasting that Utah ranked first among the states in job creation during his tenure. Perry, who has made the illusory “Texas miracle” of job creation his claim to fame, bragged in turn about the jobs created in Texas since he took office.
The governors all came prepared with job-related factoids to hurl at each other. “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” said Perry, while Huntsman told Perry that forty-seventh best “just won’t cut it.” Romney countered that Texas created more jobs under Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, than under Perry. He also defended his record and minimized Perry’s by noting that Massachusetts and Texas have different political and economic conditions.
“States are different,” said Romney. “Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things.”
It’s a fair rejoinder, but one that undermines the whole premise of their argument. Job creation in a state is not actually primarily under control of the governor. Aside from the other political bodies there are macro-economic conditions, the uneven distribution of natural resources, and political, social structural constraints. If a governor did totally control his state’s economy then the current state of affairs would be the fault of our mostly Republican batch of governors, not President Obama. If, on the other hand, the whole nation’s economy is entirely within the president’s control, as Romney, Perry and Huntsman’s constant attacks on Obama would imply, then governors don’t deserve credit or blame for their state’s economy during their tenure. By claiming that a governor controls his state’s job growth and the president controls the whole nation’s, they are making somewhat contradictory arguments. And, as Romney points out, legislatures have power too. But you don’t see Romney making that argument when it comes to the Republicans currently in control of the House of Representatives. The whole discussion also runs counter to Republicans’ simultaneous claims that the government is not a force for job creation.