Amid all the accusations and counteraccusations over Medicare, the Ryan budget, and whether Mitt Romney is a felon, a tax cheat, or a killer, it sometimes seems the political world has forgotten that the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent. If you add in all the people who want to work but have given up looking, plus those who are forced to take a part-time job when they need full-time work, the figure is 15 percent.
It's an awful, slow-motion tragedy touching tens of millions of Americans, especially when you add all the family members and dependents who are also affected. And yet, on Wednesday, a journalist with good connections in President Obama's re-election effort, Mark Halperin, reported that "Many Democratic sharpies now think if unemployment doesn't go above 9%, Romney is done and dusted."
Nine percent? Perhaps that's just bluster on the part of worried Democrats. But the fact that any politicos on the president's side would even try to sell such spin indicates the degree to which Republicans have so far failed to hold Obama fully accountable for the nation's devastating jobless rate.
Everyone knows Romney is a rich man who doesn't have to worry about a job. But he sees the terrible effects of unemployment all the time. For a while, he held off-the-record meetings with jobless and struggling workers wherever he traveled. Now, after events he sometimes tells aides what people told him as he greeted them on the rope line. There was the miner in Ohio who just wanted Romney to protect his job. The others who came up with tears in their eyes, telling him they hope he can make things better. The ones who tell him they have a job but at such low pay that they have to take on more work.
It's an ongoing calamity, but one from which the political conversation is easily distracted. For example, at Romney's press conference in South Carolina on Thursday, reporters asked one question about the tone of the presidential race, three questions about Medicare, one question about running mate Paul Ryan's background and one question about Romney's tax returns. There were no questions about unemployment.
A couple of hours later, some top Obama officials held a press conference call, and the questions focused on Romney's taxes and Medicare. There were none about unemployment.
Voters are not so easily sidetracked. In its August poll asking Americans what they think is the most important problem facing the country, Gallup found 54 percent said jobs and the economy. A grand total of seven percent named the federal deficit.
And yet, in the midst of a continuing unemployment disaster, many Republicans are now debating, in public and amongst themselves, about how much Romney and Ryan should stress bringing runaway federal spending under control by restructuring Medicare and other entitlements.
After a few days of not mentioning Medicare, which is the focus of much of his budget reform proposal, Ryan on Thursday said he's ready to fight over health care for the elderly. "This is a debate we want to have," he told a crowd in North Canton, Ohio. "This is a debate we need to have. And this is a debate we're going to win."
Both sides say they welcome the argument. But for Democrats, it's a godsend. "Any day talking about [Medicare] not jobs is a good day," the liberal journalist Jonathan Alter tweeted Thursday. And even if Democrats don't win the Medicare debate -- if Team Obama is only able to fight Romney to a draw -- that will mean a lot of good days not talking about unemployment.
There aren't that many good days in places where the jobless rate exceeds even the terrible national average. Places like Rocky Mount, N.C., where unemployment is 13.2 percent. Palm Coast, Fla., where it's 12.3 percent. Carson City, Nev., 11.8 percent. Pueblo, Colo., 11.2 percent. And those are just some examples from swing states.
It's not that Romney, and now Ryan, don't talk about joblessness on the stump. They talk about it a lot. And Romney made a great leap forward when he came up with his solutions-focused Plan For More Jobs and More Take Home Pay. But with Democrats desperate to avoid the topic, and the press showing little interest, it's up to Romney and Ryan to pound the issue of unemployment, hit it hard, over and over and over again, day after day after day. It's what matters most.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.