Republicans are pushing a simple story for 2012: If you’re not satisfied with President Obama’s economy, elect Someone Else. (More)

You’ve probably heard the joke about the cop who comes home to find a note from his wife: “I’m leaving you for anyone else.” It may have first appeared in a Squirrelock Holmes mystery, but Arthur Conan Doyle left it out of his version and the original nutshells have been lost.

Regardless, that’s basically the Republican story for 2012. House Speaker John Boehner was pushing that narrative back in January, and in April he called on other Republicans to drive that message in the media:

The President’s policies – whether we’re talking ObamaCare, the failed ‘stimulus’ or the reams of new rules and regulations – aren’t helping. They’re actually making things worse. Consequently, this November will be a referendum on the president’s policies, and we must use every resource at our disposal to drive that referendum.

This is why presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney campaigns on his business experience, yet dismisses any criticism of his time at Bain Capital as “character assassination,” and why Romney can run a campaign so vague even fellow Republicans wonder about his plans while accusing President Obama of running a “hide-and-seek” campaign.

Those are contradictions only if you see the 2012 election as a choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney. If you accept the GOP’s “referendum on Obama’s economy” frame, you need only one piece of information: are you satisfied with the economy? If so, vote for President Obama. If not, vote for Someone Else … with an intentionally vague Mitt Romney as the designated Someone Else.

It’s hard to say whether the Obama vs. Someone Else frame will hold up. William Galston said it would in a The New Republic column last October, an argument he repeated this month in a paper for the Brookings Institute:

In short, when incumbents run for reelection, the contest is mostly about their record. The challenger attacks the president’s record, as Romney did in his victory speech. And the incumbent has no choice but to defend it. He cannot run away from it, and he cannot change the subject. So he must try to frame his accomplishments as persuasively as possible. He is free to argue that he was dealt a tough hand – that is, as long as he does not appear to be evading responsibility for the results. If the results fall short, he is not free to argue that Congress is to blame for obstructing his efforts. Nadeau and Lewis-Beck find that:

“Divided government itself apparently makes no difference. The presidential office is viewed as the command post of the economy, irrespective of whether the president actually has sufficient control of Congress to implement his or her economic plan. The president is simply regarded as the CEO of the public economy.”

Also writing for The New Republic, Ed Kilgore rebutted Galston’s view:

Judgments of the incumbent’s record are certainly central to any campaign for reelection – but so are judgments of the challenger’s record, character, ideology, agenda or party. After all, life today looks a little better if you know that tomorrow could be worse. This argument isn’t just academic: It affects how Obama runs his campaign. Should he focus only on his own achievements? Or should he emphasize Romney’s failings and the agenda of the G.O.P.?

Kilgore notes that the historical sample for the “referendum on incumbent” theory is trivially small, and quotes Republican strategist Ramesh Ponnuru’s analysis of the 2004 election:

It followed, though, that a president could win re-election even with approval ratings that would once have spelled doom. In a 50-50 America, every presidential election was a choice between the incumbent and the challenger and not just a referendum on the incumbent. If voters who didn’t approve of the incumbent could be persuaded to prefer him to the challenger, the incumbent would win.

That was Bush’s game plan. Republicans portrayed Kerry as an effete liberal who would raise taxes and wouldn’t assert the national interest. They didn’t try to persuade Americans that Bush had been a terrific president or even that Kerry was unpresidential. They just made the case that Bush was better than the alternative.

In fact President Obama has campaigned both on his record – which is impressive – and attacked Romney’s embrace of the far right. The challenge, as The American Prospect‘s Jamelle Bouie explains, is that Romney’s carefully-cultivated, bland persona masks his extremism:

As time goes on, and the public continues to see Romney as an acceptable nominee, I’m less sure that he’ll be harmed by his proximity to the Tea Party. Yes, his economic policies are radical, and yes, he’s adopted the bellicose foreign policy of George W. Bush, but he projects an image of moderation. Not only is he calm, composed, and well-presented – there’s no doubt that Romney has an excellent tailor – he’s also the wealthy former governor of Massachusetts, a state known for its liberal politicians: Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry. For most voters, there’s nothing in his background to suggest extremism, even if it drips from his rhetoric.
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I’ve said this before, but one of the best things Romney has on his side is his demeanor. He can espouse a radical view of government, without worrying that anyone will actually identify him as a radical.

Any attempt to expose Romney’s radicalism will be met with charges of “character assassination” and “distraction,” because Republicans don’t want voters to ask or even think about Mitt Romney. In their “referendum on Obama” story, it should be enough that Romney is … Someone Else.

Good day and good nuts.

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