(CBS News) On June 8, 2012, President Obama declared "The private sector is doing just fine"--and the Chaos Muppets were released. Every Republican official and piece of the GOP firmament issued a press release saying this proved the president was out of touch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked if the president was living on another planet, Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor held a special press conference, Chris Christie was undone, and of course Mitt Romney had a say. GOP Archers for Less Regulation may have even sent out a Tweet.
The political fallout was predictable in a campaign where each side rolls out emergency fainting couches and commits synchronized jaw-dropping at the latest perceived outrage. Barack Obama is never allowed to say the economy is "doing just fine," just as sure as Mitt Romney is never allowed to say he's "not concerned about the very poor." Democrats clobbered Romney for his remark back in February. Now it was time for Republicans to make the president suffer. Some were even paying Obama back for his attacks on John McCain in the last campaign for a similar remark about the economy's fundamentals. (The RNC video making use of Obama's remark is almost identical to the 2008 Obama ad about McCain.).
Will this election be a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney or a referendum on Barack Obama's handing of the economy? President Obama would like it to be a choice, but he is stuck with the reality that it's likely to be a referendum. That is how he found himself in the position of saying what he did about the private sector--which is not without basis in fact. He wanted to explain the current economic slowdown, where private sector employment has been improving while the public sector has been contracting, so that he could blame Republicans for not supporting his solutions. He also explained that if the economy gets worse it's Europe's fault.
For Mitt Romney, the president's remarks no doubt seemed like a gift, but they also presented him with a choice over how to approach this election. In the wake of the Scott Walker victory in Wisconsin, conservatives from Charles Krauthammer to Bill Kristol to Walker himself have called on Romney to make the campaign about more than Obama's economic record. They would like him to make his campaign an affirmative case for conservative policies. Obama's Great Private Sector Is Fine Declaration of June 2012 is likely to hurt their argument and encourage Romney to continue along his cautious path.
Why would Mitt Romney change course when the president is making these kinds of self-inflicted wounds? Political gifts like this will keep rolling in as the president tries to wriggle out of catching blame for the economy. Why say anything provocative that might take the focus away from the president? Also, the president's "gaffe" points out something Romney knows well: The modern campaign news cycle doesn't allow candidates to say complex or risky things. Bold policies--even boldy conservative policies--have to be explained; and explaining requires a sympathetic audience willing to at least consider the meaning of adjoining sentences, not merely judge you for what you say in a single sentence.
The point of such a campaign, Romney's supporters rebut, is not simply to win the election but to have an election that is worth winning--to build a mandate for conservative government without which you'll never be able to govern as a conservative. Scott Walker, in addition to calling for more boldness from Romney, said a key lesson that he learned was that he needed to educate voters before going forward with big solutions. "My problem was I was so eager to fix it I didn't talk about it. I just fixed it," Walker told Jonathan Karl of ABC News. "We have learned from this. We are going to both talk about, get people engaged, work on solutions together and then fix it."
This, you may remember, is almost the exact sentiment that got Newt Gingrich into trouble when he claimed that Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal was "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich's point was that radical change requires educating and convincing voters.
If Mitt Romney decides to stay on the cautious path--giving speeches about free enterprise and keeping the focus on President Obama--it may win him the election. Then he'll just have to figure out what to do with a country that has not been prepared for the kind of sweeping changes he plans to make. If he doesn't win, this will be the moment conservatives will remember. Romney will be the candidate who talked forcefully about creating an environment where businesses can take risks again--and never took one himself.
More from Slate: