Romney’s secret plan: Why voters have a right to know

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The Romney campaign continues looking schizophrenic. We should be used to it. Throughout the year, they have oscillated between running a bold “change” campaign (highlighted by the selection of Paul Ryan as running mate) and running a sort of “rope-a-dope” strategy to run out the clock and squeak out a victory.

It seems the latter strategy is back.

This is problematic. As Joe Scarborough warned Monday morning, “The Romney people think they can run a Bob Dole campaign, a John McCain campaign, a Gerald Ford campaign [but] Republicans do not win by running these types of campaigns.”

The uproar, of course, it due to Romney’s appearance on Meet the Press this past Sunday. When pressed for specifics of his tax reform plan, Romney wouldn’t budge an inch. As usual, there here is a good reason and a real reason for this vagueness.

The good reason is that it would be presumptuous to lay out a detailed plan — because any tax reform would require buy-in from Congress. But the real reason is that Romney seems to believe he can get away with being vague. His team must assume that the penalty of vagueness is less than the penalty of openness (regarding which loopholes they would eliminate) — that giving the media too many details would only allow them to poke and prod and be persnickety.

In short, Romney is keeping his tax plan a secret for many of the same calculating reasons he is keeping his personal taxes a secret.

The problem is that his tax reform plan is of much greater interest to the public than his personal taxes. What is more, it’s not just the dreaded media he should be afraid of. It feels like Romney is hiding his real plans from even his base.

Here’s how George Will put it Sunday on This Week:

[T]here is uncertainty surrounding the Romney/Ryan tax cut plan, because they have not specified the deductions that will be closed. And we know where the big money is: mortgage interest deductions, charitable deductions, taxing that’s compensation, which it is, employee-provided health insurance, and state and local taxes.

All of those, you either hit only the rich, in which case you don’t get much money, or you hit the middle class.

(Emphasis mine.)

But Romney’s confusing pronouncements weren’t limited to taxation. He also said he would keep parts of Obamacare in place. His team later walked that back a bit (just as they did when Romney’s naming of former Gov. Mike Leavitt — whose consulting firm helps states comply with Obamacare — as head of his transition operation, created a controversy.) But the damage was done.

Republicans who care only about winning might not have a problem with this Dick Morris-style campaign strategy — in which you “hug” your opponent on the popular things — and draw a sharp contrast with him on the areas in which he is unpopular. But the possible long-term damage to the already-weakened Republican brand could be incalculable. As I warned a month ago: “What if Romney wins and does not extirpate Obamacare? What if he tweaks it, making it more palatable and efficient (and thus giving national health care Republican imprimatur)? This is not an absurd possibility. After all, he was the architect of RomneyCare.”

Barack Obama, of course, is a weak incumbent. “If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment,” George Will quipped Sunday, “it has to get out of politics and find another business.” But the seeds for a close general election were sown during the GOP primary. If Republicans wanted a bold campaign based on ideas, they might have chosen former Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Gingrich had other problems. And so they chose a safe candidate in Mitt Romney. Romney will run a campaign deemed serious by the media — and he will have a lot of money. Indeed, former Gov. John Sununu believes Romney will win by “carpet bombing” Obama with TV ads.

Money is the mother’s milk of politics, so it is entirely plausible that Romney wins simply by out-spending his opponent. But then what?

Matt K. Lewis