In Wednesday’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney said he would cut tax rates by 20 percent. He promised to do this without costing the government any revenue or forcing middle-class taxpayers to make up the difference. How would he make the math work? By eliminating tax loopholes and deductions.
No way, said President Obama: “If you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class.”
Romney insisted he could make the numbers add up, but he wouldn’t say how. “I’m going to work together with Congress” to figure out “what are the various ways we could bring down deductions,” he asserted.
This preposterous dodge has been going on for weeks. Romney, Paul Ryan, and their surrogates have refused to say which deductions they’d eliminate. But their magic accounting, whatever it is, can’t be half as creative as the arguments they’ve concocted for hiding it. Here’s a catalogue of their excuses so far.
1. Specificity is for accountants. Last week on Meet the Press, David Gregory objected that Romney “has failed to enumerate any of the deductions that he would eliminate.” Romney’s representative on the show, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., dismissed the objection: “Gov. Romney has laid out a direction and a vision for the direction of this country. He’s not an accountant. He is not going to go line by line, as much as you like him to do, through the budget.”
2. Specificity is for incumbents. George Stephanopoulos made the same point to Christie on This Week: “Gov. Romney has not been willing to lay out which deductions are going to go away for the wealthy.” Christie replied: “Well, listen, the president of the United States has an obligation after four years as being president to be the one who is the most specific.”
3. Specificity is presumptuous. On Sept. 16, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network asked Ryan: “Is there a reason you guys aren’t naming specific tax loopholes?” Ryan humbly explained his reticence: “We don’t want to presume to say, ‘Here’s exactly our way or the highway. Take it or leave it, Congress.’”
4. Specificity is micromanagement. On Sept. 27, CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, “I just want to know if we're going to get specifics by the time November rolls around.” Portman lectured him: “You don't dictate to Congress exactly how it's going to be done. You need to work with Congress to actually get it done. You know, this is a president in Barack Obama who has not been able to work with Congress on anything substantial … And so I think it does not make sense to lay out all the specifics.”
5. Vagueness is standard practice. On Sept. 16, CNN’s Candy Crowley asked whether Romney “needs to come out and say specifically, ‘Here is what I would do to reform the tax code. Here are the loopholes I would close.’” Romney’s surrogate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, responded that Romney was “running a perfectly fine campaign. This is the level of specificity that American candidates usually give in a campaign.”
6. Vagueness is leadership. In an interview for the Sept. 23 broadcast of 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley pressed Romney: “What are we talking about? The mortgage deduction? The charitable deduction?” Romney spurned the question. “To work together with people across the aisle,” Romney explained, “you don't hand them a complete document and say, ‘Here, take this or leave it.’ Look, leadership is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. We've seen too much of that in Washington.”
7. Voters don’t need specifics. Stephanopoulos asked Christie, “But don't voters have a right to know what those [loopholes] are?” Christie brushed him off: “Voters have a right to know what direction he's going to take the country in.”
9. Principles are specifics. Gregory asked Romney, “Where are the specifics of how you get to this math?” Romney spun the question around: “Well, the specifics are these, which is those principles I described … I’m not going to increase the tax burden on middle income families.” When Gregory pressed for “an example of a loophole that you will close,” Romney offered another generality: “Well, I can tell you that people at the high end, high-income taxpayers, are going to have fewer deductions and exemptions.”
8. “Vision” is all the clarity you need. In several interviews, Ryan deflected questions about specific tax loopholes by calling Romney’s plan a “vision,” “framework,” or “outline.” “That's what Gov. Romney is laying out, is a very clear vision,” Christie told Stephanopoulos. “He's going to negotiate with Congress about those loopholes. … He's not going to lock himself into something now.”
10. We don’t have time to explain it. “You haven't given me the math,” Chris Wallace protested in a Fox News interview with Ryan last Sunday. “I don't have the time,” Ryan pleaded. “It would take me too long to go through all of the math.”
11. We’ll seek public input after the election. “We don't want to do this in a backroom-deal kind of a way, like Obamacare was done,” Ryan argued on the Sept. 9 edition of Face the Nation. “We want to have a debate out in front, work with Congress, work with the public to find out what are the priorities we want to have in the tax system.” A week later, Ryan gave Brody the same shtick: “We want to do this in front, in the public, through congressional hearings with Congress, so that we can get to the best conclusion with a public participation.” In a Bloomberg interview this week, Ryan repeated, “We want to have, you know, Congress and the public participate in this debate about how best to do this.” Romney and Ryan believe deeply in informing and consulting the public, but not until after the election.
12. Politicians, not voters, represent the people’s will. When Ryan tried his after-the-election spiel, Stephanopoulos asked the obvious follow-up: “But why not specify the loopholes now?” Ryan answered: “Because we want to have this debate in the public. We want to have this debate with Congress. And we want to do this with the consent of the elected representatives of the people.”
That’s what Romney and Ryan are selling. They promise they can cut tax rates and eliminate enough loopholes to maintain the same revenue without touching any of the credits or deductions—mortgage interest, charitable contributions, medical expenses, health insurance, child credits, state and local taxes—that might hurt the middle class. They won’t tell you how they’ll do this, because that information might affect your vote and thereby get in the way of true democracy—which, as we all know, consists of a post-election negotiation between the Romney administration, a Republican Congress, and year-round Washington tax lobbyists who represent ordinary folks like you. If you buy that, you’ll learn the hard way what W.C. Fields taught 76 years ago: Never give a sucker an even break.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: