Ezra Klein has a nice item today making the case that Mitt Romney has been far less specific about policy plans than many previous major party nominees. I like this point:
It should not be considered partisan to demand details from the two men campaigning to be president. Both Republicans and Democrats should want to know the specifics of Romney’s tax plan. Both liberals and conservatives should insist that Romney reveal his plans to regulate the financial system. But so far, Romney has refused to give voters the most basic information about what he would do as president.
There’s been some subsequent twitter conversation about whether conservatives, in particular, should really want more explicit policy planning. Jonathan Chait said that Republicans “*should* like it if they believe vagueness will help Romney win and implement those ideas, which it probably will.”
Both of them have a point. If Republicans believe that Romney will do the same thing regardless of what he says on the campaign trail (and if they believe that staying vague will help him), then Chait is correct. But it’s also true that campaign promises tend to be more constraining on politicians if they’re more specific, and more high-profile.
If Romney is specific about tax rate cuts but vague about curtailing tax expenditures, he’s more likely to do the former and not the latter. Now, that may be what most Republicans want anyway (and there’s the problem that in some cases the implied promises are mathematically impossible; Romney simply cannot cut rates the way he wants while staying revenue-neutral and also avoiding any shift away from taxing the rich, because the numbers just don’t add up). If, however, they really want to close deductions and credits, to cut spending, and to replace Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act, then they should get detailed commitments from Romney about those things.
The truth is however that in the general election campaign it’s not unusual for the impulse to get away from specifics will trump the impulse for them. After all, in the general election campaign Romney is most concerned not with core Republican voters but with swing voters, and it’s the nature of these things that many of the specifics that core partisans want aren’t all that popular outside of ideological activists. The incentives for specific plans are usually found in the nomination phase, when party-aligned interests and ideologically charged activists are carefully comparing seemingly identical candidates, giving those party actors quite a bit of leverage over the candidates.
At least, normally. This cycle’s Republican nomination process seemingly truncated all of that; Romney was really only pushed a bit, with all the serious contenders knocked out or severely weakened by the time Iowa Republicans caucused. . That’s the flip side of what I was talking about when I said that Romney wasn’t vetted; he also wasn’t really pushed hard on policy, either, at least not in ways that produced public, high-visibility pledges.
So: yes, Republicans overall have a strong interest in nailing down Romney’s positions, but if he got away with it in the primaries then he’s sure to get away with it now, because the incentives shift to favor vagueness.