Why the timing and substance of Mitt Romney’s strategy change prompt a reflection on our national conversation
Last week, as Mitt Romney called a press conference to control the damage from the “47 percent” video, his campaign staff was worried for three reasons.
One: The public was learning that Romney believes that nearly half of Americans face economic difficulty because they don’t work hard.
Two: Romney was about to be victimized by a sound byte — “My job is not to worry about those people” — that may become as infamous as when the president said “you didn’t build that.” Both statements, when placed in the proper context, take on much more sensible meanings. The president was making the point that businesses benefit from public services, not that business owners didn’t build their businesses. Romney simply meant that in a competitive election, he can’t focus campaign resources on voters whom he believes to be firmly dedicated to the president. He did not mean that he would cast their concerns away if he were elected.
But the impact of gaffes on presidential elections, no matter how much they dominate the news cycle, tends to be limited. Even if the Romney campaign didn’t take that into account, their third concern should have dwarfed their first two:
Three: Just hours before the remarks were leaked, the campaign trumpeted a sweeping strategy change, and their candidate’s remarks had dashed any momentum that they hoped to gain by controlling the news cycle.
Around 6 a.m., mainstream political outlets began posting what was essentially the same story: Facing worrisome polling trends, the Romney campaign has announced that it will change its strategy. This new strategy will focus more on the specifics of how Mitt Romney would govern. With under 50 days to go until the election, the Romney campaign has decided that voters need to hear more specifics about Mr. Romney’s proposals — and this is a new strategy.
Romney made his first presidential bid in 2008. His 2012 campaign kicked off on June 2, 2011. And only now, in the face of harsh polling data, and pressure from conservative pundits, has the campaign decided that voters need to know more about how Romney would run the country.
In one way this is stunning. After a year and a half during which the Romney campaign has spent over $163 million, and outside groups dedicated to his election have spent at least another $160 million, many voters still have a poor idea of how the Republican nominee would govern.
But at the same time, the shift isn’t surprising. The details of several of Romney’s proposals have glaring inadequacies.
One of the main staples of Romney’s economic plan is a 20 percent reduction in individual income tax rates, and the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for those making less than $200,000 per year. Romney claims that these tax cuts would be paid for by eliminating tax breaks and deductions that would increase the amount of income that is taxable. On the campaign trail, Romney has failed to specify the breaks and deductions he would eliminate. However, on April 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that Romney (again at a fundraiser closed to the press) told donors that he would limit the mortgage interest deduction for second homes, the state income tax deduction, and the state property tax deduction.
According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the elimination of these deductions would only make up a drop in the bucket relative to what it would take to make the tax cut revenue neutral. These income, property, and mortgage deductions eliminations would make up $67.8 billion of $900 billion in revenue that the Romney tax plan would lose by 2015.
During an interview on September 23, Romney was asked about which tax exemptions and deductions he intended to eliminate. Romney replied, “Well that’s something Congress and I will have to work out together. But Scott Pelley of CBS pressed back: “You’re asking the American people to hire you as President of the United States. They’d like to hear some specifics.” Romney then outlined his idea of lowering rates while remaining revenue neutral by eliminating deductions. But once again, he failed to mention any deductions.
The following exchange cuts to the heart of why Romney’s new strategy is not going to inform our national dialogue. Pelley pressed the governor further by saying, “The devil is in the details though — what are we talking about? The mortgage deduction? The charitable deduction?” Romney’s response, “The devil is in the details but the angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.”
Every voter would support a policy of job creation. But job creation isn’t a policy, it is the desired outcome of a policy. And when it comes to explaining how his policies would create jobs, while remaining revenue neutral, the Republican candidate clearly has some work to do.
Another troubling lack of specificity comes when Romney addresses immigration policy. This summer, the president announced that the executive branch would no longer deport immigrants who came to the United States before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, are high school graduates or are military veterans. When Romney was pressed for an answer on what he would do to reform our immigration system, all he could say was that he would come up with “a permanent, long-term, solution.” When asked if he would repeal the president’s measure, he said, “We’ll look at that setting, as we reach that.” And as recently as September 19, two months after he had been pressed for an answer, Romney’s answer was still that we should craft “a permanent solution”, but he failed to offer what that solution would be.
With these glaring weaknesses, it makes sense that the campaign has avoided a detailed discussion for so long. But now, as strategy shifts, what details will be presented to the American public?
The Romney campaign kicked off the new strategy with a nationwide ad called “The Romney Plan.” If the object of the ad was to provide detail, it failed. Romney stressed the urgency of cutting government spending and balancing the budget, but failed to mention how he would do so. He also said that he would “champion small business” by implementing “tax policies, regulations, and health care policies that help small business.” Again, he didn’t mention any specific policies, or how they might work.
Ads like these will still satisfy conservative strategists who demanded more detail from the campaign. But these aren’t details. When it comes to cutting spending, Romney does have several concrete proposals. They include raising the eligibility age for social security, the conversion of Medicaid to a block grant administered by the states, adjusting the wages of federal workers to “market levels”, reducing the federal workforce, scaling back government programs that serve the same purpose, and fighting for a balanced budget amendment to the constitution.
It’s clear that at least on this subject, Romney has details, but has failed to inject them into the public discourse. One may argue that candidates can’t discuss issues in great levels of detail in 30 second ads. But they can. They have the resources at their disposal to make several ads that all focus on one issue, or even just smaller components of a single issue. For example, instead of releasing an ad that just glosses over a few of Romney’s proposals, an ad could focus only on how the governor would cut government spending, and mention the policies listed above. This strategy could be applied to all the issues on the table, and our debate would already be transformed.
But these details aren’t mentioned in ads, nor are they touted on the campaign trail. Instead they can only be dug up in Romney’s position papers on his website.
In a June 3 interview, when chief Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom was asked about the campaign’s lack of specificity, he replied, “The governor has laid out very detailed plans. People can go to MittRomney.com and learn about them for themselves.”
The Romney campaign is armed with a $160 million dollar war chest, hundreds of field offices spread across the country, and the machinery of the Republican party (not to mention the resources of SuperPACs and other outside groups). Should voters really have to pore through papers on MittRomney.com to uncover the specifics of how a man who may be their next president will lead?
Americans deserve a better debate, one that isn’t fraught with negativity, doesn’t bolster the payrolls of fact checking organizations, and forces every candidate to provide more detail.
In order to get the debate we deserve, we must recognize a dual responsibility. As the consumers of political arguments, we can’t afford to reward negativity, and embrace pithy sound bites. We must crave substance, numbers, facts, and thorough explanations. At the same time, we must expect our politicians to trust that the American people want a more constructive national dialogue. But politicians may only do so once they realize that the demands of voters have changed. Politicians should be our leaders. But solving this problem may only be possible once we take the lead.