Mitt Romney has a problem with specifics. Since Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin, a growing number of Republicans have been calling for something more from him. His recent responses on questions from tax reform to immigration have been thin or nonexistent. When reporters tried to get an answer about the candidate’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s immigration law, his spokesperson was so evasive, my colleagues might want to plant a mulberry bush in the press section to make the next round of the game more lively. Usually you have to win the White House before you can be that skilled at ducking and weaving.
But wait. A Romney campaign aide told Politico’s Jonathan Martin, when he wrote about this topic, that they have offered an "unprecedented" level of specificity. How can these two things both be true? To understand the disconnect, think of an ad for a prescription drug in a magazine. On one page there is an uplifting, well-lit picture of a healthy woman walking through a sunlit glen on the way to success. On the following two pages is all the fine print and possible side effects. Romney is specific about the glen and the breeze—tax cuts; more jobs for everyone; innovation; no more waste, fraud, and abuse—but is not so specific about the two pages of complexity and possible consequence.
Is Romney offering an “unprecedented” level of specificity? This is an exciting claim, but it is contradicted by history. Next to me is my worn copy of Renewing America's Purpose, the 450-page volume of George W. Bush's policy addresses and proposals from 1999-2000. By this time in the 2000 campaign, Bush had unveiled a lot more policy than Romney has, including a plan to offer workers the ability to invest some of their Social Security money in private accounts. "Mr. Bush is dominating the policy debate," the Economist wrote 12 years ago this month. "[He] has seized on the opportunities to appear both bipartisan and statesmanlike."
It's also hard for the Romney campaign to boast about specificity when the candidate is doing the opposite. He's talked about why he won’t give details because specificity was used against him in his Senate race and how his programs can't be evaluated by any experts because he hasn’t provided details.
How then can the Romney campaign claim to be so specific? The same way politicians like to believe that a response is the same as an answer. In background material offered by the campaign to show where Romney has been specific, many of the items were not so much Romney proposals but criticisms of President Obama. (This is also true of Romney’s 160-page briefing book [pdf] titled Believe in America, which should have the subtitle Because Obama Doesn’t.) A host of statements were generalities—a quotation from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan outlining mistakes that caused Wall Street’s collapse, and calls for "dynamic regulations." In the section on financial system reform, Romney's adviser Glenn Hubbard is quoted from a Wall Street Journal article, saying that Romney would replace "the new system for dismantling failing financial companies that was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law with a new system, which [Hubbard] declined to specify."
The Romney campaign is specific about some things. Romney will enact a 5-percent cut of nonsecurity spending on Day One of his presidency. He'll privatize Amtrak and reduce subsidies for NEA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—all of which is very specific but not highly consequential policy. He will repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is very specific. But he refuses to get specific about what will replace it. He’s more specific about Medicare—seniors would be provided with a specified amount of money to purchase benefits, and private plans could compete—but details about how benefits would keep up with health costs are vague.