Why Mitt Romney Won’t Get Specific—About Anything

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 26 2012 7:47 PM

Evasive Maneuvers

Mitt Romney doesn’t want to say anything, specifically.

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When CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked Tim Pawlenty, who launched his presidential campaign on the idea of telling hard truths, where Romney was being specific, the former Minnesota governor mentioned tax reform. Naming an issue area is not being specific. Adviser Eric Fehrnstrom offered Romney’s plan for reducing the corporate tax rate as an example of specificity. Saying you're going to reduce corporate tax rates is the easy part; naming the loopholes to do so is harder. The word “loopholes” appears only twice in the 160-page Romney policy document: "Meanwhile, loopholes favor those with the best lobbyists. If we close loopholes and lower the tax rate, the American people and corporations will win." (#winning).

When Gov. Romney was asked just what loopholes he would close to lower corporate and individual taxes, he said he'll work with Congress on that when he’s elected. One of the funniest things Nancy Pelosi ever said was that Congress had to pass the Affordable Care Act to know what was in it. Romney makes a variant of that claim here: To know what he will do, we must elect him. 

The Romney campaign responds that the president has not been specific, either. This is true. The best example was Obama’s refusal to back the specifics of the Simpson-Bowles commission. (It was a commission he commissioned which makes this a sin of commission.) But just because President Obama's posture is slouchy doesn't erase the fact that Romney is in the fetal position. Implicit in the Romney campaign's criticism of President Obama's specificity is a standard of how detailed one should be. But the Romney campaign would not like that standard to be applied to its candidate. 

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Obama may not achieve the Platonic ideal of specificity, but he's well ahead of Mitt Romney. On loopholes, for example, President Obama has proposed a host he would remove (found on pages 202-05 of this Treasury Department explanation of the administration’s revenue proposals). The largest one (explained on pages 73-74) would close loopholes ("tax expenditures") for the wealthy by reducing (but not eliminating) the value of itemized deductions. Obama's framework for reducing corporate tax rates can be found here.

Presidents are always more specific than their challengers because they have to actually put things on paper. In fact, it is President Obama's specificity that Mitt Romney is actually running against, in the form of the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform, the Recovery Act, and the auto bail-out. Obama can't both lack a plan for dealing with Medicare costs and be attacked for hatching the Independent Payment Advisory Board that is supposed to hold down Medicare costs. There’s more than enough in all of that for voters to evaluate the president's priorities, his manner, and his effectiveness on those policies. For a challenger without a recent governing past or a rich history, specificity is one way to evaluate him as a possible president. 

So is Mitt Romney trying to get away with something? At the moment, yes, but there’s plenty of time left in the campaign for him to get specific. Imagine if Gov. Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate. He'd go from policy avoidance to basing his entire campaign on one of the most detailed campaign documents ever: the Ryan budget. The political debate would be filled with plumes of charts and graphs. The big important debate we should be having about the role of government in American life would finally start. The speeches would probably get no shorter and the policy books would not shrink, but we might actually find something useful in them.


 

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