On Economy, Romney Blurs Contrast

National Journal

Apparently Mitt Romney likes government regulation, loves Medicare the way it is, agrees fairly regularly with President Obama, and does not, in fact, want to cut taxes very much.

Those are gross simplifications of Romney’s economic platform, and ones very much at odds with the antitax, antiregulation, pro-entitlement-reform campaign the former Massachusetts governor has waged for more than a year. But if you were tuning into the presidential race for the first time on Wednesday night, you’d be forgiven if you thought the simplifications were actually the crux of Romney’s plan for the country.

Romney did his best to give off that impression in the first debate of the general election, in Denver. He challenged Obama repeatedly on the incumbent’s claim that Romney wants to reduce taxes by $5 trillion: “I don’t have a tax cut, of the scale you’re talking about.”

He started nearly every answer to questions about his plan to reduce the future costs of government safety-net spending by stressing that they wouldn’t affect current Medicare recipients: “If you are around 60 years or older, you don’t need to listen any longer.”

And when asked by moderator Jim Lehrer if government regulations were burdening the economy, a staple of Romney’s campaign-trail diagnosis of why the recovery has been so weak, the challenger began his answer with a paean to the government hand in the marketplace: “Regulation is essential.”

In each case, Romney eventually laid out his proposals. He said his tax plan would reduce the burden on middle-class families by closing loopholes for the wealthy, which would lead to efficiency and job creation. His Medicare plan would curb cost growth in the future by injecting private competition (and benefit caps) into the program. He would repeal Dodd-Frank financial regulations that codify “too big to fail” on Wall Street, and replace them with … something.

Along the way, it was easy to lose count of the number of times Romney paused to emphasize areas where he and President Obama agree.

Romney didn’t break out an array of new details for his policy proposals, as his campaign hinted he would. Instead, he defended his lack of specificity as a Reagan-esque strategy for shepherding legislation through Congress.

He didn’t spend much time beating up on Obama’s record, or on articulating a clear, conservative vision to contrast with the president’s. His best attack “zinger,” saying Obama favors “trickle-down government,” was, by definition, an acknowledgment that voters recoil from the “trickle-down economics” that have long defined conservative jobs plans.

Obama was left to counterpunch: “For 18 months, he’s been running on this tax plan. Now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying his big, bold idea is, ‘Never mind’.”

Later, Obama wondered sarcastically if the reason Romney wasn’t offering more policy details was “because they’re too good. Is it somehow because middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”

Romney and his allies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars reminding voters how weak the economy has been under Obama -- but it hasn’t been enough to vault him to a lead in the polls. Romney’s task, in this debate, was to convince swing voters that he has a sound and tangible plan to do better than the president has, especially on job creation.

It's possible that, by softening the edges of most of his platform, Romney reassured voters that he's a safe bet for improvement over Obama.

It's possible that he just gave them an even hazier picture of what he stands for.

And it's possible that both those things are true.

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