Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney’s Sham Economic Plan

Time for Romney to return to the economy—though his economic “plan” will do nothing for his campaign.

Bryan Oller / AP Photo

Well, it seems like a good week for Mitt Romney to try to steer the conversation back to the economy. It doesn’t help him, granted, when people like Bill Kristol are saying that Obama managed the financial crisis “pretty well.” But foreign policy and the culture-warrior stuff hasn’t played so well for him, and after all, the economy was supposed to be his raison d’être in the first place, and the first debate is coming up next week, so why not? The only problem is that the economy doesn’t really help him either. As long as he refuses to be specific about which tax loopholes he’d close, he can’t talk economy with any real credibility.

A quick catch-you-up for those you who haven’t gotten this message yet. Romney wants to cut everyone’s tax rates. He acknowledges this will reduce revenue. He says he’ll make up the revenue by closing loopholes, but only those used by the wealthy. Experts say there aren’t enough of those. So he’ll have to close loopholes that middle-class people depend on. And obviously, that is a subject he has no desire to discuss.

Romney’s tax plan is absolutely central to his economic argument—everything, from growth to jobs to cutting the deficit, starts with cutting taxes. And it’s worth noting that, on this as on all issues, he’s moved hard right. He had one tax plan last year, but it clearly didn’t placate the right wing, so he came back in the late spring and released the new and current one, bigger and “bolder,” more Ryanesque and Norquistesque.

As with everything else he’s done to please the right, it’s causing him all sorts of problems back here on planet Earth. His numbers don’t add up, he knows they don’t add up, and so when pressed, he insists that they do, while ducking the kind of questions that presidential candidates from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Gary Bauer and Lamar Alexander routinely have answers for. A number of journalists have tried, and all have failed.

And so, on 60 Minutes Sunday, Steve Kroft gave it another shot, only to be told by Romney that specifics would be a hindrance at this point because “if you want to work together with people across the aisle, you lay out your principles and your policy, you work together with them, but 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.”

That’s just so obviously a dodge that he doesn’t even deserve an E for effort. No one is compelling him to say to Congress, “Here’s my plan, take it or leave it.” He can and in fact should say to Congress, “Here’s my plan, now let’s talk.” That’s actually what leadership is.

It’s my view that Romney’s intentional vagueness here is hurting him very badly. This may seem on its surface like the kind of thing that’s a little too wonky for your average American, but I say au contraire. I think most people grasp the problem here all too well.

There are a lot of details about politics and policy the American people don’t really get. But there are some things they do get. They get that they are permitted under current law to deduct the interest they pay on their mortgages. They get that their contributions to their health-care premiums are taken out of their paychecks before taxes are levied. And they—a fairly solid majority, anyway—get that supply-side economics has given the middle class the shaft and benefited the wealthy.

So when they hear a guy worth a quarter-billion dollars say he’s cutting taxes but won’t discuss loopholes, this is what I think they hear: he’s going to help himself and his friends, and we’re going to be left paying the bill. There may not be much class envy in America, but there is that much, anyway.

So let’s take a step back and unravel this. The economy was supposed to be Romney’s great strength. The Obama campaign hit him pretty hard on Bain and his business experience, so that advantage was neutralized. But still, he had the chance to say, “Bain aside, this here is how I’m going to fix the economy.” This is something all campaigns do. Romney has a five-point plan, but it’s not really a plan per se. It’s mostly just a set of goals. It’s as if I came up with a five-point plan to become rich and famous that went: write bestselling novel, win Oscar with follow-up screenplay, write movie theme song, and have Adele record it, start successful restaurant chain, invent next Internet.

It’s nice to see that this flimflam actually can’t work. People scoff at politicians’ promises, and I understand why, but in fact, behind most campaign promises are teams of policy experts at least trying to figure out how the candidate can fulfill that promise once in office. Romney’s promise is a right-wing fantasy that will benefit the same people who always benefit from Republican policies. Most voters can sense this. So he can’t really campaign now on the economy either. That doesn’t leave many options.