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“The Devil Is In The Details”: The Paradoxes Of Romney’s “Specificity Problem”

Every candidate confronts the question of how detailed they should be in their policy plans, and the basic calculation goes as follows: I want to seem substantive and serious, so it’s good to have detailed plans, but I don’t want the plans to be so detailed that they give my opponent something to use against me and allow voters to find things they don’t like. So usually they find some middling level of specificity, and tolerate whatever criticism they get from one end for not being detailed enough, and from the other end for specific ideas people don’t like. But rarely does the question of how specific you’re being become a story in and of itself.

Mitt Romney has arrived at that moment, when his unwillingness to reveal exactly what he wants to do in a variety of policy areas is becoming a story in its own right. Here’s Steve Kornacki writing about it in SalonHere’s The Wall Street Journal editorial page criticizing him for not being specific. Here’s aTPM report on other conservatives scolding Romney for his vagueness. Here’san L.A. Times editorial asking for specifics on Romney’s tax plan (which we’ll get to in a moment. Here’s an NPR story about the specificity question. And President Obama is picking up the issue and using it as an attack, which helps propel the story forward.

It’s one thing to be vague because you think getting bogged down in a discussion of details will distract from your broader message, but it’s another thing to be vague because a discussion of details will reveal that you’re promising things you can’t possibly deliver. And Romney’s real problem, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, isn’t that he’s being completely vague but that he’s been specific in some parts of what he’s proposed but vague in others. He says he wants to cut all income tax rates 20 percent (specific!) and that when he does it, not only will wealthy people not pay any less (specific!) but that the whole thing will be revenue-neutral (specific!). If he had just said “I want to cut income tax rates, and we’ll look for deductions to eliminate and try to do it in a way that won’t increase the deficit,” I doubt this would be an issue. But because he offered some specifics but refuses to say how he’ll make his proposals add up—by explaining which deductions and loopholes he wants to eliminate to pay for the rate cuts, or even suggesting a single deduction or loophole he’d eliminate—he has backed himself into a corner.

And once he starts getting asked questions about it, he sounds incredibly squirrelly. When David Gregory pressed Romney for the specifics of his tax plan, Romney said, “Well, the—the specifics are these which is those principles I described are the heart of my policy.” That’s right, the principles are the specifics. Which is like you saying, “Here’s a chicken salad sandwich,” and when I say, “No, this is just two pieces of bread,” you reply, “Well, the bread isthe chicken salad.”

It’s important to remember that Mitt’s lack of specificity isn’t anything new, and it isn’t just about taxes. Months ago, I was complaining that though he had built his entire campaign on the idea that his private sector experience gave him a unique understanding of the economy that would enable him to create millions of jobs (“I understand how the economy works!” he says a dozen times every day), not only had he not offered a single policy proposal that was any different from what every Republican has been proposing for decades, he wasn’t even capable of saying what exactly he learned in the private sector. (When pressed, he did manage to explain that businesses have to pay for energy, so if energy were cheaper, they’d make more money. Truly revelatory.)

This is one of the paradoxes of Mitt Romney. He’s famously detail-oriented, thinking in PowerPoint presentations and capable of saying, “Here are twelve things we can do” and rattling off every one. His running mate is supposedly the wonkiest wonk in the GOP. Yet he’s put himself in a position where not only does he not want to get into the details of what he would do as president, he can’t. What is he supposed to do now that he finds himself in this position? On the loophole question he could come up with a piddling loophole or two that he’d eliminate, then face questions about how inadequate it is. Or he could say, “I’ll get rid of the mortgage interest deduction” and make everyone freak out. So my guess is he’ll hunker down and hope that in a couple of days this all goes away, just like the question of his tax returns did.

That was really the same problem in a different form: he wanted to look open and transparent, but he didn’t actually want people to see the tax forms. So he stood firm, and eventually the controversy ran its course and now nobody asks him about it anymore. Going through that process, however, reinforced the image of him as a plutocrat hiding something from the voters. This specificity question will eventually go away too, but by the time that happens he may have sustained real damage.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, September 11, 2012

September 12, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Texan Ain’t Shooting Straight: Rick Perry’s Double Talk On Social Security And The Constitution

This we know: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the apparent GOP 2012 front-runner, doesn’t like Social Security.

He has, for example, described it in his recent book as not only a “Ponzi scheme,” but “by far the best example” of a program “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles,” and as having been put in place “at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.” Elsewhere he has said that the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause does not cover Social Security and Medicare. In other words not only is Social Security bad policy, Perry believes, but actually in defiance of our founding principles in general and the Constitution in particular.

While he and his campaign had appeared to dance away from these characterizations, Perry was at it again in Iowa over the weekend, calling the program a “monstrous lie,” and saying that he stood by everything in his book (including, presumably, Social Security’s unconstitutionality).

So here’s what I want to know: What would President Rick Perry do about Social Security?

It’s one thing to note that Perry makes crazy comments. As Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen notes, “Perry is positioning himself well outside the American mainstream. It’s going to impress the Republican Party’s far-right base, but it won’t impress anyone else.”

But there is a necessary connection between views and policies. What would Perry’s policy toward Social Security be in the White House?

As it happens, he answered that question, in part, during his Iowa campaign swing. This from the Houston Chronicle:

He told the Ottumwa crowd that for people who are drawing Social Security or near eligibility “like me,” he wasn’t proposing a change in the program. But he said there should be a national conversation about potential changes for others, including raising the age of eligibility and establishing a threshold based on a person’s means.

“Does Warren Buffett need to get Social Security? Maybe not,” he said.

Huh? Let me see if I understand this. Social Security “violently tossed aside any respect for our founding principles,” and was instituted at the “expense of respect for the Constitution.” And his solution to these problems is … means testing? And a national conversation about entitlement reform?

Those responses seem awfully conventional for a pol who is so self-consciously talking such a big, radical game about one of the nation’s beloved government programs. Either he’s tossing cow chips when he decries the program, or has something else under his hat when he spouts mealy-mouthed solutions to what he sees as its problems. But either way, this Texan ain’t shooting straight.

Reporters should press Perry on Social Security—does he really believe the program is unconstitutional? If so, doesn’t he have an obligation to defend the Constitution by ending the illegal program (including for people drawing it or nearing eligibility)? And if not, what exactly does he mean when he says that the program violently tosses aside respect for the Constitution? And if it is constitutional, what is its constitutional basis, if not the general welfare clause?

If that all seems a bit much, maybe the moderator of the next GOP debate can boil it down simply: “Raise your hand if you think Social Security is unconstitutional.”

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, August 29, 2011

August 30, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Constitution, Democracy, Elections, GOP, Government, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Middle Class, Neo-Cons, Politics, Press, Public, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Social Security, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You’re Not Under Oath: Is Gov Rick Perry Dumb?

Politico asks the question out loud.

The answer from Perry’s friends and supporters is not reassuring.

“If he should know about John Locke, he’ll know about John Locke,” said [Tex lobbyist and Perry supporter] Bill Miller. “If it’s not on his schedule, it’s irrelevant to him.”

In other words: his aides run him.

His policy focus as governor hasn’t been complex – it’s almost entirely jobs and business-focused – but that’s not where Perry’s mind is, say those who know him.

He’s a power politician and very canny one. And what seems to animate him is competition.

Whether it is winning elections, beating out other states in attracting jobs or besting them for college football recruits, Perry is ferociously single-minded.

In other words: he is keenly political, but has little policy focus – which will be some handicap for a president who will face after 2013 the toughest economic policy challenges since the 1930s.

“There were some guys we always thought were the brainiacs, the ones who got into the minutiae of legislation,” recalled Cliff Johnson, an Austin lobbyist and close Perry friend and former roommate from their days serving together as Democratic legislators. “We sought information from trusted folks.”

In other words: lobbyists will run him.

Trained as an Air Force pilot right out of A&M, Perry was “taught to trust your information,” said Johnson.

And associates say the same lessons that Perry learned when he was flying C-130s apply now.

“Pilots execute flight plans,” said Miller. “They have a plan, they fly a certain pattern and that’s the way he’s always operated — he has a flight plan for what he’s trying to do and he executes.”

That’s quite an insult to combat pilots, who must react, respond and improvise. “Executing the flight plan” seems a terrible way to approach the presidency. It’s the president’s job to write the flight plan.

Mike Baselice, Perry’s longtime pollster, said his client is of the Ronald Reagan school of management: “Trust people and manage well.”

“His job is to go meet voters,” said Baselice. “We’ll figure out the details of the messaging.”

Voters would do well to ask: Who’s this “we” that will really be running the country during a Perry presidency?

 

By: David Frum, The FrumForum, August 29, 2011

 

August 29, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Economy, Elections, GOP, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Lobbyists, Politics, Public, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No More Civility: Bipartisanship In “Republican-Speak” Is Code For Tax Cuts For The Wealthy

Last week, President Obama offered a spirited defense of his party’s values — in effect, of the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Immediately thereafter, as always happens when Democrats take a stand, the civility police came out in force. The president, we were told, was being too partisan; he needs to treat his opponents with respect; he should have lunch with them, and work out a consensus.

That’s a bad idea. Equally important, it’s an undemocratic idea.

Let’s review the story so far.

Two weeks ago, House Republicans released their big budget proposal, selling it to credulous pundits as a statement of necessity, not ideology — a document telling America What Must Be Done.

But it was, in fact, a deeply partisan document, which you might have guessed from the opening sentence: “Where the president has failed, House Republicans will lead.” It hyped the danger of deficits, yet even on its own (not at all credible) accounting, spending cuts were used mainly to pay for tax cuts rather than deficit reduction. The transparent and obvious goal was to use deficit fears to impose a vision of small government and low taxes, especially on the wealthy.

So the House budget proposal revealed a yawning gap between the two parties’ priorities. And it revealed a deep difference in views about how the world works.

When the proposal was released, it was praised as a “wonk-approved” plan that had been run by the experts. But the “experts” in question, it turned out, were at the Heritage Foundation, and few people outside the hard right found their conclusions credible. In the words of the consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers — which makes its living telling businesses what they need to know, not telling politicians what they want to hear — the Heritage analysis was “both flawed and contrived.” Basically, Heritage went all in on the much-refuted claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy produces miraculous economic results, including a surge in revenue that actually reduces the deficit.

By the way, Heritage is always like this. Whenever there’s something the G.O.P. doesn’t like — say, environmental protection — Heritage can be counted on to produce a report, based on no economic model anyone else recognizes, claiming that this policy would cause huge job losses. Correspondingly, whenever there’s something Republicans want, like tax cuts for the wealthy or for corporations, Heritage can be counted on to claim that this policy would yield immense economic benefits.

The point is that the two parties don’t just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes, with Republicans in particular having a stable of supposed experts who reliably endorse whatever they propose.

So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where’s the common ground?

Eventually, of course, America must choose between these differing visions. And we have a way of doing that. It’s called democracy.

Now, Republicans claim that last year’s midterms gave them a mandate for the vision embodied in their budget. But last year the G.O.P. ran against what it called the “massive Medicare cuts” contained in the health reform law. How, then, can the election have provided a mandate for a plan that not only would preserve all of those cuts, but would go on, over time, to dismantle Medicare completely?

For what it’s worth, polls suggest that the public’s priorities are nothing like those embodied in the Republican budget. Large majorities support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy. Large majorities — including a majority of Republicans — also oppose major changes to Medicare. Of course, the poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But that’s all the more reason to make the 2012 election a clear choice between visions.

Which brings me to those calls for a bipartisan solution. Sorry to be cynical, but right now “bipartisan” is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans — all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves — and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

This would be a corrupt, undemocratic way to make decisions about the shape of our society even if those involved really were wise men with a deep grasp of the issues. It’s much worse when many of those at the table are the sort of people who solicit and believe the kind of policy analyses that the Heritage Foundation supplies.

So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 17, 2011

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Ideology, Journalists, Media, Neo-Cons, Politics, President Obama, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Voters, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pragmatic Policy vs Ideological Philosophy

For some time now, Democrats and Republicans alike have been yearning for a great philosophical clash between the two parties. No more of this five percent of 12 percent of the federal budget stuff. We wanted entitlements, the role of government, the obligations that the old have to the young, that the rich have to the poor, that the powerful have to the powerless.

Paul Ryan’s budget offer exactly that sort of reconstruction of the social compact. America is a very different place before his budget than it would be after his budget. But though Obama’s speech was closer to that sort of clash of visions than anything he’s offered before — he used the word “vision” 15 times, for instance — what he offered was not philosophy. It was policy. But you have to read it closely — and know where it came from — to see that.

This is difficult advice when it comes to deficit reduction, but don’t look at the number. This plan cuts $4 trillion, that plan cuts $2 trillion, that one cuts $10 trillion. Those numbers reflect little but the internal hopes and dreams of the plan. If I say that my plan means Medicare will never spend another penny and economic growth will shoot to 8 percent — and that’s only a shade less optimistic than the assumptions and models included in the Ryan budget (pdf) — I can save an almost unlimited amount of money. My number can be anything I want it to be. The problem is I actually can’t save that much money because my math is based on fantasy. So my number is meaningless.

President Obama says his plan cuts $4 trillion over 12 years. Rep. Paul Ryan says his plan cuts $4 trillion over 10 years. If you look at the numbers, the two plans appear quite similar. But if you look at how they’d get to the number, they couldn’t be more different. And it’s how you get to the number that matters, because that’s what decides whether you’ll get to the number. It’s also, incidentally, what decides the shape of our government going forward.

Ryan’s number is the product of holding the growth of Medicare and Medicaid to the rate of inflation, which is far lower than has ever been shown to be possible. How he gets there is, on Medicaid, he tells the states to figure it out, and on Medicare, he tells seniors to figure it out. Both strategies have been tried: Various states have gotten waivers to radically remake their Medicaid program, and the consumer-driven model that Ryan is proposing for Medicare has been attempted in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program and Medicare Advantage. None of these programs have worked, which is why we’re in our current predicament.

Obama’s number is the product of holding Medicare growth to GDP+0.5 percent — which is, in practice, a few percentage points beyond inflation, and a few percentage points behind the health-care system’s normal rate of growth. He mostly gets there through the cost controls passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, which hope to hold Medicare to GDP+1 percent. He then proposes to shave a further half-percentage point off the growth rate by introducing value-based insurance — where we pay more for treatments that are proven to work than for treatments that are not proven to work — into Medicare and giving generic drugs quicker entry into the marketplace. These programs have worked at smaller scales and in more limited pilots. We don’t know if they’ll work across the entire Medicare system, but we have reason to think they will.

Then there are taxes. Ryan’s plan pledges to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, at a cost of at least $4 trillion over 10 years, and more after that. He’d then clean out the tax code, but he’d pump the money he made from closing expenditures back into tax cuts. Obama proposes to return to the Clinton-era tax rates on income over $250,000 and then raise a further trillion through closing tax expenditures. Altogether, that’s about $2 trillion less than letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, but at least $2 trillion more than Ryan’s plan. Notably, Obama hasn’t said which expenditures he’d close to get to $1 trillion. The difference between the two tax plans — particularly when added to Obama’s decision to cut $400 billion from security-related spending, while Ryan largely exempts that category — explains why Obama doesn’t have to make such deep cuts in programs for seniors and low-income Americans.

So are we finally getting the grand philosophical debate we wanted? Not quite. Obama spoke extensively of vision — the GOP’s, which “claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires … {while} asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill,” and his, “where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and rising opportunity for our children,” but he’s overselling it.

Obama’s budget is not philosophy. It is very similar to the Simpson-Bowles report, which attracted the votes of Republicans as far to the right as Tom Coburn. Few Democrats would say their vision of balancing the budget is one in which there was only one dollar of new taxes for every three dollars of spending cuts, but that’s what Obama’s proposal envisions. Obama’s budget, somewhat curiously, is what you’d expect at the end of a negotiation process, not the beginning. In fact, as it’s modeled off of Simpson-Bowles, it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that might pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation. Every dollar it purports to raise comes from cutting spending. Not one comes from taxes. It privatizes Medicare and unwinds the federal government’s role in Medicaid. For all the philosophy in his budget — and his budget does have a very different philosophy about the proper role of government than we see in federal pllicy today — there’s neither policy that could pass nor policy that could work. And, curiously for a conservative who distrusts both government and congress, it has no answer to the question of “what if this fails?”

The policy that clarifies this difference is the “trigger.” Obama’s budget, aware that it might not pass and, if it does pass, it might not work, proposes to make automatic cuts to discretionary spending and tax expenditures if the promised savings don’t materialize. If Ryan’s budget falls shorts, there’s no comparable failsafe. That is to say, Obama’s budget has two plausible ways to get to its number, while Ryan’s budget has none. You don’t need a PhD in philosophy to understand why that’s a problem.

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, April 13, 2011

April 14, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Ideology, Medicaid, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, States | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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