Does Mitt Romney want to cut jobs for police, firefighters, and teachers?

A new ad from the Obama reelection campaign charges just that, while Mitt Romney calls the idea 'completely absurd.' They can't both be right.

Steve Nesius/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney addresses supporters during a campaign rally at Con-Air Industries Inc., in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday.

Does Mitt Romney want to reduce the number of firefighters, police, and teachers in America? That’s what the Obama reelection campaign is charging. They’ve got a new ad out that asserts local government jobs shrank dramatically in Massachusetts while Mr. Romney was governor, and that he plans similar reductions if he wins in November.

“Mitt Romney’s economic plan? He wants to cut jobs for firefighters, police, and teachers,” says the campaign spot.

Romney’s not turning the other cheek on this one. On Tuesday, Romney said in a Fox News appearance that this charge is “completely absurd.”

“The federal government doesn’t pay for teachers, firefighters, or policeman,” Romney told the hosts of Fox & Friends.

Hmmm. The two sides are pretty far apart on this question. Who is right here? What’s the context?

We’d say this: A Romney statement this week did imply that he believes the nation needs fewer of these particular categories of public servants. But the comment might be better understood as a variation on the continuing Republican theme that government as a whole needs to be smaller and less intrusive in US life.

First, the original statement: At a campaign stop last Friday Romney seized on President Obama’s controversial statement that the private sector is “fine” and that employment as a whole is soft because public sector jobs are down.

Romney said of Mr. Obama that “he says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Generally speaking, Republicans are for smaller government at all levels. But they don’t typically move on to imply that the nation needs fewer of its more popular types of public servants – particularly those involved in public safety.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who just survived a recall attempt sparked by his bill that stripped many public sector workers of bargaining rights, made just that distinction. Police and firefighters were exempt from his cutbacks.

That’s why Governor Walker distanced himself from Romney’s remarks in an appearance Sunday on CBS’s "Face the Nation." His crackdown “allowed us to protect firefighters, police officers, and teachers. That’s not what I think of when I think of big government.”

Now, Romney is literally correct to say that Washington doesn’t hire firefighters, etc. Those are local or state employees.

But Obama’s stimulus bills contained billions in subsidies for state and local government to keep their employees on the job. Much of that stimulus spending has run out, which is one reason why public sector employment is declining.

That’s what we think this whole economic discussion of recent days is mostly about. Obama would prefer that Congress pass more stimulus spending to help heat up public sector hiring. Romney thinks that is failed Keynesianism that just runs up debt. This is a basic distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties.

In closing, we’ll make a couple of other points. Walker may not think of firefighters, police officers, and teachers as part of big government, but they are. As liberal economist Paul Krugman pointed out Tuesday on his blog, “teachers” and “protective services” together account for the majority of state and local employment.

However, despite public sector job losses, the unemployment rate for government workers is low, writes conservative American Enterprise Institute fellow Marc Thiessen. It’s just 4.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrast this with the unemployment rate for construction, which is 14.2 percent, or with the rate for leisure and hospitality services, which is 9.7 percent.

“If the rest of Americans enjoyed the same unemployment rate as government workers, Obama would be cruising to reelection,” writes Thiessen in a Washington Post opinion piece.

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