I have a radical idea. It'll never happen, and the American system of politics would never be able to accommodate such a thing, but I'll put it on the table anyway, and invite the mockery.
Here's the idea: since jobs are the nation's most pressing issue, and there's an incredibly important presidential campaign coming up, President Obama and Mitt Romney can each present detailed jobs plans. Then, those plans can be subjected to independent scrutiny, and voters can support the candidate with the superior agenda. Like I said, it's radical stuff.
Of course, all kidding aside, we're not completely flying blind. Romney declared today, "The president doesn't have a plan, hasn't proposed any new ideas to get the economy going," but that's ridiculously untrue -- the Americans Jobs Act exists, it included specific, bipartisan proposals, it was subjected to outside scrutiny, and it would have worked very well.
And what about Romney's alternative? Today, the Republican pointed to a series of job-creation ideas: increased oil production, trade with Latin America, cracking down on China, and cutting the corporate tax rate. Ezra Klein noticed one of the main problems with this jobs agenda: it's slow.
[W]orking out trade agreements takes a long time. Getting the Keystone oil pipeline up and running takes a long time. Rewriting and implementing a new corporate tax code takes a long time. Changing China's policies takes a long time. It's difficult to see how any of these ideas creates a substantial number of jobs quickly.
Obama also tends to emphasize four parts of his plan: increasing infrastructure investment, hiring more state and local workers, doubling the size of the payroll tax cut and adding a new set of tax cuts for small businesses and companies that hire new employees. Two of those policies imply directly hiring hundreds of thousands of workers. The other two move money into the economy immediately. It's easier to see how these policies lead to more jobs and demand in the short term.
In terms of the deficit, the Obama administration has put forward a specific set of ideas -- mostly by eliminating itemized deductions for wealthier Americans -- to pay for its plan. The Romney campaign has not yet said how it will cut corporate and individual tax rates without increasing the deficit.
So, to review, Obama's agenda would create jobs right away, would be fully paid for, and would reduce the deficit over time. Romney's agenda wouldn't create jobs right away, isn't fully paid for, and would apparently increase the deficit over time. Or as Jeffrey Liebman recently put it, "What would Gov. Romney do to create jobs now? In a word, nothing."
This doesn't appear to be much of a contest.
But in an electoral context, Greg Sargent makes the case today that my fantastical notion of competing jobs plans is probably less likely to actually happen given this morning's figures.
If the recovery stalls out, it becomes far easier for Romney to make the election all about Obama, and paradoxically, it encourages Romney to be more vague about what he'd do to solve this. The political conversation focuses more on this election as a referendum on Obama — because history teaches us that this is how swing voters will see things in a tanking economy — and less on the choice voters face between two prescriptions for fixing it. It's a self-reinforcing dynamic.
Indeed, to respond to bad jobs numbers by asking whose plan would actually fix things has an almost quaint or naive quality.... Look at it this way. Yesterday, two major voices within the GOP -- the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Bill Kristol -- both called on Romney to be more specific about his plans and vision for the economy. If the bad jobs numbers continue, and it looks more likely that Romney can win by keeping the focus only on Obama, do you really imagine that such voices will continue demanding that Romney offer more detail about his agenda?
At least as far as the discourse is concerned, it's tough to feel optimistic about the nature of the debate.