The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol has few rivals in Republican media when it comes to influence and access, so when he strays far from the party line, it's hard not to notice. And when he gives up entirely on his candidate's central rationale, it's evidence of a larger issue.
For those who can't watch clips online, Kristol argued, "I've thought this for months. If this election's just about the last four years, that's a muddy verdict. Bush was president during the financial meltdown. The Obama team has turned that around pretty well. The Clinton speech at the convention was very important in that way. How horrible was it four years ago? [Romney's] got to make it a referendum on the choice about the next four years."
In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that Kristol went on to criticize the White House over foreign policy and national security, and urged the Republican ticket to focus on these issues. That said, this doesn't take away from the remarkable and unexpected argument the Weekly Standard editor presented, on Fox News no less.
In effect, the Romney/Ryan message is: "Obama tried to improve the economy but failed." And Kristol's argument boils down to: "Actually, Obama succeeded, so look forward not back."
Six weeks before Election Day, one of the nation's most influential Republican voices went on the Republicans' favorite network and said the driving rationale behind the Republican presidential campaign is wrong. Romney has spent a year telling anyone who would listen that 2012 is a referendum on Obama's performance over the last four years, and Bill Kristol is now arguing the exact opposite.
Consider that quote again: "Bush was president during the financial meltdown. The Obama team has turned that around pretty well." If I were to tell you, without any additional information, that this quote was repeated on one of the Sunday shows, would you think it came from an Obama surrogate or a Romney ally?
That it's from the latter reinforces the fact that Romney faces a serious challenge.