On Friday, Mitt Romney argued policymakers can "help the American people" by laying off, not just public-sector workers in general, but specifically school teachers, police officers, and firefighters. The call for more public-sector austerity was immediately welcomed by President Obama's re-election team.
Any chance the Romney camp might walk this back? Apparently not -- former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), a leading Romney surrogate, talked to MSNBC's Chris Jansing this morning, doubling down on the pro-layoffs line. Sununu said "people ought to stop jumping on it as a gaffe" -- he's right; this was a policy position, not a gaffe -- but added that Romney's position is "wise."
The whole thing is worth watching, but Sununu's pitch effectively came to this: layoff for teachers and first responders is a good thing, because in some parts of the country, the population is shrinking. Or as he specifically put it, "If there's fewer kids in the classrooms, the taxpayers really do want to hear there will be fewer teachers."
As spin goes, this is pretty weak. Romney wasn't talking about population shifts; he was talking about the size of government. The Republican nominee specifically told supporters, "[Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
He didn't say "cut back on government" in areas based on trends in Census data.
For that matter, Sununu doesn't know what he's talking about. Teachers and first responders aren't being forced from their jobs because of shrinking populations; they're unemployed because state and local governments are broke. The result are more struggling schools and less public safety. This, in turn, is bad those who get laid off, bad for the communities they serve, and bad for the economy as these folks scale back.
But then there's that other part of Sununu's argument: what "taxpayers really do want to hear."
Way back in the mists of ancient history, when Obama proposed the American Jobs Act, pollsters took the judicious step of polling its individual provisions. The relevant findings:
* A CNN poll in October of 2011 found that 75 percent of Americans supported “providing federal money to state governments to allow them to hire teachers and first responders,” including 72 percent of independents.
* A New York Times/CBS poll in September of 2011 found that 52 percent, and 51 percent of independents, think it’s a “good idea” to “provide money to state governments to avoid layoffs.”
* A National Journal poll at around the same time found that 70 percent thought “providing funds to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers, police officers, and other first responders” would be “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in creating more jobs.
At least as of last fall, what Romney believes would "help the American people" and the American people believe would help the American people are two very different things.
Senate Republicans killed this provision of the American Jobs Act last year with a filibuster, but Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter suggested this morning that the Senate schedule another vote on this, which could help crystalize the larger economic debate. Indeed, the argument itself could be incredibly instructive for voters -- Romney could explain why he thinks the country would benefit from more layoffs, and Obama could explain why he believes the opposite.
No word yet from Senate Democrats about whether we can expect another vote.