Newt Gingrich isn’t right about much. But he’s onto something about Mitt Romney’s weaknesses as the GOP candidate. Gingrich has been saying that the idea that Romney is electable is “just silly”: “I find it amazing the news media continues to say he is the most electable Republican when he can't even break out in his own party. But the fact is that Gov. Romney in the end has a very limited appeal in a conservative party.” There are ways in which Romney is the least electable of the remaining plausible candidates. These issues, all having to do with economics (the country’s and Romney’s own), surfaced this week, and assuming he is the nominee, they’ll get plenty of air time between now and November.
On Thursday, we got the first major analysis of Romney’s tax plan, and it’s predictably reactionary. Taxes on the working poor would actually increase, says the Tax Policy Center. Households in the $50,000 and slightly above range would see a small decrease of 2.2 percent, or around $250. Households bringing in more than $1 million a year would see a decrease of 15 percent, or roughly $146,000. In some other country, this alone would be shocking and self-disqualifying. In 2012 America, sad to say, it marks Romney’s plan as slightly less extreme than those of his competitors. But the essential instinct to genuflect to the ultra-rich is intact.
In the Occupy era, Romney’s plan will be vulnerable to attack on those grounds alone. People aren’t exactly taking to the barricades demanding more tax cuts right now, least of all more giveaways to the very top earners. One poll just before Christmas asked people to rank the importance of addressing unemployment, reducing the deficit, or cutting taxes. Results, respectively: 55, 29, and 12 percent. Most people have a sense that taxes are pretty low these days, which, viewed historically, they are.
But Romney’s tax plan is most vulnerable on the deficit. The Tax Policy Center found that Romney’s tax plan would add $600 billion to the deficit in 2015. That’s a lot of cabbage; nearly half of the current deficit, which is now right just under $1.3 trillion (and projected to go under $1 trillion next year). So in other words, just as the deficit is starting to come down—an issue of great importance to swing voters, by the way—Romney is proposing a massive increase in the deficit, so the rest of us can write $146,000 checks to people who take home $1 million (not “millionaires”; people who make $1 million every single year).Obama—whose own tax plan, by the way, is estimated to reduce the deficit by around $300 billion over five years—ought to be able to destroy such a plan. The Romney people will respond, as they have to this study, with the usual lie about lower tax rates unleashing the dynamism of a newly free people and so on. It will be just as false as it was in the 2000s when the Bush people said it, and I think this time around, enough voters will be able to smell the rat.
So far, all this just makes Romney your run-of-the-mill class-warfare plutocrat. But combine it with the second Romney tax issue—his own—and I start to see the guy’s jaw turning into glass before my very eyes.
Romney will not release his tax returns. Why he won’t is a matter of speculation, but it seems a reasonable guess that he doesn’t want people to see what he’s been still making off of his earlier work at Bain Capital (remember, he’s been “unemployed” for a few years now), and he doesn’t want them to see that he’s been paying tax on this income at a rate of 15 percent rather than 35 percent. Last October, Michael Scherer of Time reported that the Romneys made somewhere between (love the size of these categories!) $6.6 million and $40 million—the vast majority of it in capital gains, which are taxed at 15 percent. A couple earning together around $100,000 in straight salary almost certainly pays a higher effective rate than the Romneys.
Then there are all of Romney’s clumsy lies about the number of jobs he created at Bain, which Greg Sargent first exposed earlier this week. Basically, Romney counted jobs gained at firms Bain reorganized long after he left the firm in 1999, but he didn’t count any jobs lost at firms Bain reorganized. I’d love to do my household budget that way, counting only the good stuff.
An ultra-rich man whose economic plan helps the ultra-rich and explodes the deficit, and who can’t be straight with the public about his own income taxes—that’s who’s leading the GOP field. He’s still probably more electable than Gingrich, or Rick Santorum, whose skeezy, Abramoff-related entanglements will soon see the light of day. But that isn’t saying much. Romney is vastly overrated by liberals as a general election foe. Sure, if the economy backslides, Romney could win, simply by not being the incumbent. But short of a new economic crisis, he’s a huge target. If Democrats want something to worry about, they can worry about the EU, or terrorism. But Mitt Romney? He may be the GOP’s only non-joke candidate, but that doesn’t mean he’s a strong one.