Mitt Romney's new economic plan: Did it just fizzle?

Mark Trumbull

An important speech by Mitt Romney in Detroit, with just days before Michigan voters go to the polls in a primary, probably didn't go as well as the Republican presidential candidate had hoped.

It was billed as a major speech, but the Associated Press described it as offering "few new policy ideas."

Video footage showed Mr. Romney talking to a crowd of some 1,200, gathered in the middle of a football stadium with tens of thousands of empty seats in the background. (Actually, the bad visuals arose because tickets for the speech sold out at the Detroit Economic Club's initial location, leading to a quick change of venue.)

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And even as he tried to connect with the car culture of Motor City, the Michigan-raised Romney made a comment that could cement a rich-plutocrat image with many voters: He said his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs." 

So will this be known as the flop at Ford Field?

If he ends up losing the state's primary vote on Tuesday, perhaps. But as a statement of policy and purpose, the speech offered several items of note. So here's a look at the more substantive points of what Romney said.

ECONOMIC PLAN. First off, although much of what Romney said wasn't new, the speech revealed that the candidate does have a real economic plan.

That doesn't mean voters all agree with it, and independent economists are still wondering if the numbers all add up. But Romney has put forward a number of concrete ideas connected to a larger vision.

"I want to restore America's promise," he said, citing the nation's tradition as a magnet for optimists, risk-takers, and innovators. He argued that a growing presence of government in the economy means that "we are inches away from no longer being a free economy."

His economic plan includes some elements that are new this week (even if they weren't introduced in the speech itself). Before a Republican debate Wednesday, the Romney campaign fleshed out a tax-reform plan, calling for all personal income-tax rates to drop by 20 percent.

ENTITLEMENT REFORM. Romney also offered some new insights on entitlement reform. He blasted President Obama for saying he would make Medicare and Social Security solvent for future generations, but not offering serious plans.

"A few common-sense reforms will ensure we make good on our promises to today’s seniors while saving Social Security and Medicare for future generations," Romney said.

He called tax hikes "off the table" and said there will be no change for those at or near retirement.

On Social Security, Romney said a slow rise in the retirement age, coupled with slower growth in benefits for higher-income retirees, could fix the program's looming cash-flow imbalance.

On Medicare, Romney has embraced a "premium support" concept in which seniors could choose among insurance providers (including traditional Medicare) and receive government support to ensure they can afford that coverage. Lower-income seniors will receive the most generous benefits.

He said the new system should start for new retirees in 2022. "We will gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age by one month each year," Romney said. "In the long run, the eligibility ages for both programs will be indexed to longevity so that they increase only as fast as life expectancy."

Those are substantive ideas, albeit not ones that necessarily get crowds cheering – even members of the Detroit Economic Club.  TAX REFORM. Romney's income-tax plan, meanwhile, has drawn some significant conservative approval this week.

The former Massachusetts governor linked the tax-cut plan to job growth, calling low tax rates an incentive for hard work and risk-taking. More than half of all workers in the US, Romney said, are employed in businesses that pay taxes under the personal-income code, not as corporations.

SIZE OF GOVERNMENT. Romney also pledged to downsize government by cutting programs, capping federal spending, and ultimately balancing the federal budget.

On this front, budget experts say he still needs to flesh out how to accomplish those goals. His tax-reform plans don't bring in new revenue, so balancing the budget – at his announced spending cap of 20 percent of gross domestic product – would require sizable cuts at a time when much of federal spending goes to programs like Social Security that are mandated by law.

Entitlement reforms are one vital step toward solvency, as Romney noted. He also pledged a thorough review of whether programs could be eliminated entirely or transferred to states. With social-welfare programs including Medicaid, he suggested that many could be turned into block grants to the states, with a cap on the rate of future federal spending.

But the specific program cuts Romney outlined in the speech were few, including Amtrak subsidies and funding for Planned Parenthood. He pledged to maintain military superiority.

AUTO INDUSTRY. In a paean to Michigan, Romney said that his policies would help Detroit retain global leadership in the auto industry.  

But both GOP rival Rick Santorum and the Democrat-backed group have come out with ads pointing to Romney's opposition to a bailout for the auto industry during the financial crisis. 

And Romney's recounting of the multiple American-made cars that he and his wife drive, coming on top of gaffes made earlier in the campaign, could hurt Romney with some voters, adding fuel to the notion that he's an out of touch multimillionaire.

Yes, the speech didn't appear to be a crowd-wower – and Romney could use a few of those. But it showed a candidate who at least appears to have done his homework. 

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