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Wonkbook: Vote for Romney. He loves America.

at 07:55 AM ET, 04/25/2012

You know what, wonks? This campaign is going to be a bummer.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney takes the stage at an election night rally in Manchester, N.H., April 24. (Jae C. Hong - AP)
On Tuesday, Mitt Romney gave a speech billed as his big general-election pitch. It was a perfectly serviceable piece of work: competently written and competently delivered. But it didn't contain an ounce of actual policy. If this speech was all you knew of Mitt Romney -- if it was your one guide to his presidential campaign -- you'd sum his message up as, "vote for me: I think America is great."

Don't believe me? The full speech is here. The first nine paragraphs are biography. The next eight are attack lines on President Obama ("It’s still about the economy …and we’re not stupid"). Then we get into Romney's vision.

"I have a very different vision for America, and of our future," Romney said. "It is an America driven by freedom, where free people, pursuing happiness in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans. Because there are so many enterprises that are succeeding, the competition for hard-working, educated and skilled employees is intense, and so wages and salaries rise."

Sign me up! So how is Romney going to make sure so many enterprises are succeeding that competition for workers drives wages and salaries skyward? Well, here's the very next paragraph: "I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents - some successful even beyond their wildest dreams – and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it."

And then: "In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded. And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school, and practiced in the workplace."

So on, and so forth. Romney never makes the turn to how he would achieve this America. Believing in it is apparently enough. The end result isn't so much a preview of how Romney would govern the country as a game of "I Spy: America the Beautiful" edition.

I'm not a pollster. I don't know if the American people want to hear about policy. Perhaps they prefer gauzy generalities. Perhaps they're more interested in what candidates think of America than what they want to do for America. But if this is what the general election is going to be like, then it's not going to be a clash of visions. It's going to be a clash of adjectives. And in that case, it really will be the economy, stupid, as the American people will have nothing in particular to vote for.

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Top stories

1) Mitt Romney delivered his general-election pitch: "Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change. But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama? Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump? If the answer were 'yes' to those questions, then President Obama would be running for re-election based on his achievements…and rightly so. But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time. But not here and not now. It’s still about the economy …and we’re not stupid."

Romney's speech as a wordcloud: http://pic.twitter.com/VLJbnMA0

McKay Coppins at Buzzfeed : "A quick LexisNexis search returned 96 articles written since the first vote was cast in Iowa discussing a “pivot” to the general election on Romney’s part. Will the 97th time be the charm?"

2) The UK is officially in a double-dip recession: "Britain's economy slid into its second recession since the financial crisis after official data unexpectedly showed a fall in output in the first three months of 2012, piling pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron's embattled coalition government. The Office for National Statistics said Britain's gross domestic product fell 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012 after contracting by 0.3 percent at the end of 2011, confounding forecasts for 0.1 percent growth." Reuters/CNBC .

@JustinWolfers: "UK now in a double-dip recession. I hope that the rest of us heed whatever lessons we should draw from this."

@IanShepherdson: "Britain: Never mind the double-dip thing, and don't worry about the austerity; only 90% of the spending cuts still to come. Have some tea."

3) Obama's student loan plan will get a Senate vote. "U.S. Senate Democrats will propose legislation modeled on President Barack Obama’s plan to freeze student-loan interest rates, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters today he will introduce a bill 'in the next 24 hours' that would cover the cost of an interest-rate freeze. Obama pledged to keep student- loan interest rates steady as he campaigned at college campuses in three states. Senate Democrats and the White House have settled on a one- year freeze. The $6 billion cost would be offset by limiting a tax provision that allows some owners of so-called S- corporations to avoid paying Medicare payroll taxes on their earnings, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, told reporters today following a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats. Harkin said the legislation would subject income of more than $250,000 a year earned at S-corporations with fewer than three shareholders to the Medicare payroll tax." Kathleen Hunter in Bloomberg.

4) The Senate won't accept Keystone XL approval in the highway bill. "Senate Democrats will hold firm and reject House Republican demands to include approval of the Keystone oil pipeline in transportation funding legislation, their leader said Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would not in any way help Republicans move Keystone approval across the finish line...Reid’s position creates more political uncertainty for popular transportation programs and sets Senate Democrats up for a collision with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans insisting on the project as a price for a new highway bill. Reid’s tough line on the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline was also reflected in the lawmakers he chose Tuesday to negotiate with the House. Senate leaders picked eight Democrats and six Republicans, and among the Democrats’ selections, only Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) -- who isn’t facing reelection until 2014 -- has voted for requiring approval of the project." Ben Geman in The Hill.

5) The housing market may have finally bottomed out. "New data show a U.S. housing market that is continuing to struggle but is perhaps nearing a bottom, with new home sales falling and prices remaining near their post-crisis low. The latest survey from S&P/Case-Shiller noted basically stagnant prices from January to February. Adjusted for seasonal variations in sales, prices rose slightly in February after several months of decline. Without adjusting for seasonal differences, the survey of prices in 20 metropolitan areas fell to its lowest level since the housing market downturn began. But analysts pointed to bright spots hidden in the data -- and some ventured that the housing market may have finally found its low...After six months of declines through the end of 2011, home prices rose slightly in February, rising on a seasonally adjusted basis by about 0.15 percent above January. On a yearly basis, that still marks a 3.5 percent decline from the previous February." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

@morningmoneyben: Phoenix rising: Home prices up five months in a row. Context: still off 54 percent (!!) from the bubble peak.

@StanHumphries: Any housing recovery will be dependent on job growth. Continued progress in this area is essential to keeping housing recovery on track

6) The House will add privacy protections to its cybersecurity bill. "The authors of a House cybersecurity bill said Tuesday they will offer several amendments to address the concerns of privacy groups. After the announcement of changes by authors Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), one of the leading groups campaigning against the bill, said it still has concerns but will 'not oppose the process moving forward in the House.'...Rogers and Ruppersberger said lawmakers will offer amendments on the floor later this week to address the concerns of the privacy groups. One amendment would tighten limitations on how the government can use the information it collects. The government would only be able to use the information to protect against a cyber attack, investigate cyber crime, protect national security, protect against theft or bodily harm or to protect minors from child pornography." Brendan Sasso in The Hill.

Top op-eds

1) ORSZAG: We can survive taxmageddon. "It might not be possible to reach a framework agreement during the lame duck. Then, all the tax cuts would expire. A dramatic scenario, but this, unfortunately, may be the most likely. In January 2013, the economy would be hit with a major fiscal contraction, market anxiety would rise, and both sides would blame each other for Washington’s dysfunction. But there would be a silver lining: The debate could then move away from the question of which tax cuts to extend. If we get to this point, the administration could step forward with an entirely different concept for decreasing taxes. It could propose, for example, large increases in the payroll- tax holiday and in the standard income-tax deduction. This would reduce taxes for everyone, but do it in a much more progressive fashion than the Bush tax cuts did. The net result of the new tax cuts and the expiration of the Bush ones would be higher taxes for upper-income people, as the administration desires." Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

2) PORTER: Disability insurance costs are out of control. "Every year, when the trustees of Social Security and Medicare publish their report on the programs’ finances they set off a round of partisan bickering about the solvency of the twin programs covering pensions and health care for retired Americans. Every year, a vitally important issue gets lost in the din: disability insurance payments, which account for almost $1 out of every $5 spent by Social Security, are growing out of control. Disability insurance takes too many workers out of the job market prematurely. It reduces their lifetime income and, to top it off, slows economic growth. Yet in contrast to the heated arguments about Social Security and Medicare, fixing the disability problem inspires hardly any discussion. The trustees reported Monday that the government made $128.9 billion in insurance payments to 10.6 million disabled workers and their family members last year, 25 percent more than it received from payroll taxes." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

3) HUBBARD: Obama's budget would require higher taxes for everyone. "President Obama's budget proposes to continue elevated levels of federal spending relative to GDP. So how does the president propose to pay for this? We are told that the answer is to raise taxes on upper-income workers...Now let's review the math. All these tax increases on upper-income taxpayers are projected to raise $148 billion per year. Viewed next to proposed additional spending of roughly $500 billion per year, or this year's federal budget deficit of $1.3 trillion, the president's budget faces an arithmetic challenge. How big is that challenge? Maintaining the president's higher spending will require raising taxes for all Americans. Assuming the president favors raising marginal tax rates over broadening the tax base (consistent with his failure to consider the tax proposals from Bowles-Simpson), an across-the-board tax increase of 11% for taxpayers with incomes under $200,000 would be required to raise the money the president proposes to spend." Glenn Hubbard in The Wall Street Journal.

4) CROOK: Conservatives need to adjust to a changed economy. "As I explained last week, recessions accelerate structural transformations, and this unusually severe recession will do so with unusual force. Without losing sight of the here and now, politicians in Europe and the U.S. need to examine their ideas to make sure they fit this new world. Neither the left nor the right needs to abandon its basic worldview: The creative tension between conservatives’ trust in individual initiative and market forces and the left’s concern for fairness and solidarity will never be resolved, and trying to resolve it would be a mistake. But both sides have some rethinking to do. Let’s start with the right...Conservatives need to recognize three crucial shifts. First, globalization and information technology are increasing the rate of industrial change...Second, without new government interventions, the gap between winners and losers may continue to widen...Third, the new economy will put different demands on infrastructure and other public services." Clive Crook in Bloomberg.

5) BIGGS: A payroll tax cut for the near-elderly could boost Social Security. "The annual Social Security Trustees Report, released on Monday, confirms that the program is significantly underfunded. After decades of delay, Congress and the next president will need to take steps to restore Social Security's finances and improve Americans' retirement income security. Although it might seem counterintuitive, one positive step toward achieving both goals is to cut the 12.4% payroll tax for workers nearing retirement, say, at age 62. The reason is that the current system encourages too many individuals to retire early, forgoing the extra savings they could have by extending their work lives...Obviously, reducing or even eliminating the payroll tax for older workers would lower Social Security revenues. But increased labor-force participation would raise non-Social Security tax collections. The budgetary question is how these balance out." Andrew Biggs in The Wall Street Journal.

Top long reads

Paul Krugman on the gap between Ben Bernanke's academic writing and his actions at the Fed: "When the financial crisis struck in 2008, many economists took comfort in at least one aspect of the situation: the best possible person, Ben Bernanke, was in place as chairman of the Federal Reserve...The Bernanke Conundrum -- the divergence between what Professor Bernanke advocated and what Chairman Bernanke has actually done -- can be reconciled in a few possible ways. Maybe Professor Bernanke was wrong, and there’s nothing more a policy maker in this situation can do. Maybe politics are the impediment, and Chairman Bernanke has been forced to hide his inner professor. Or maybe the onetime academic has been assimilated by the Fed Borg and turned into a conventional central banker. Whichever account you prefer, however, the fact is that the Fed isn’t doing the job many economists expected it to do, and a result is mass suffering for American workers."

@ObsoleteDogma: Do people really believe that the Fed can *only* target 2% inflation? Why can Australia successfully target 4%?

@greg_ip: Bernanke better be ready for a lot of Krugman-inspired questions on Wednesday.

Concert interlude: Of Montreal play "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" live at the 9:30 Club.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: CEO pay disclosure draws controversy; debate over the details of changes to the FDA; postal reform moves forward; Keystone XL isn't going anywhere in the Senate; and a frog just wants to sit down for a moment.

Economy

Congress is getting closer to a deal on the Export-Import Bank. "House leaders showed increased confidence Tuesday of a deal soon on renewing the Export-Import Bank charter, with most attention on a three-year framework raising the exposure cap to between $130 billion and $140 billion. In recent days the White House has provided new detail forecasting the bank’s lending needs into 2015. While the administration won’t get everything it wants, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has moved substantially from the much tighter caps he had proposed earlier this spring...The short term changes can be as important. By the end of fiscal 2012 this September 30, the bank’s exposure could be as high as $117 billion, well above its current $100 billion cap but also above the additional $10 billion stepped-increase proposed by the Senate Banking Committee." David Rogers in Politico.

A SEC rule on CEO pay disclosure is facing pushback. "President Barack Obama is looking like he’s about to get caught in the middle of another tense showdown between labor unions and corporate America over federal rules on CEO pay. The Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to finalize a requirement from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform that companies disclose how much their chief executives earn compared with a typical employee. But already, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is turning up the pressure on the White House to deliver on Obama’s rhetoric about income inequality and lean harder on the SEC to finish things up...A coalition of 22 trade associations, including heavy hitters like the American Petroleum Institute, the Business Roundtable, the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claim the new disclosure would cost a publicly traded company more than $7.6 million a year -- and without doing much good." Josh Boak in Politico.

Foreclosure to rental conversions are booming. "With home prices at historic lows and rental rates on the rise, Richards and a growing number of investors with cash to spare are seeking lucrative returns by gobbling up foreclosures in distressed markets across the country and turning them into rentals...The real estate data firm CoreLogic estimated in a report this month that the burgeoning foreclosures-to-rental business could become a $100 billion industry this year as bigger investors get involved in hard-hit markets from Florida to California to Arizona to the Midwest. Yun cited a recent NAR survey that shows sales of investment homes soared nearly 65 percent in 2011 over the previous year...Of course, the speculators who furiously acquired properties and flipped them in search of quick profits played a key role in fueling the housing bubble that wrecked the U.S. economy. But for the moment, Yun believes, the current investor boom in turning foreclosures into rentals could actually help to heal the ailing housing market." Brady Dennis in The Washington Post.

@justinwolfers: Garnish is a funny word. Think about it: garnishing your wages sounds nice--like you're decorating it with parsley. But I bet it's not nice.

Time lapse interlude: Birth to twelve years old in under three minutes.

Health Care

The details of an FDA bill may prove tough to resolve. "The only health legislation that has any chance of passing before the elections this fall will be marked up by both chambers later this week, but key differences over proposed amendments to the FDA user fee bill in the House and Senate could lead to a protracted fight...Some of the finer grain details are likely to cause contention as the bills progress. For instance, both bills include language to spur development of new antibiotics that are effective against drug-resistant germs, and there is substantial bipartisan support for expanded protection against generic competition -- or exclusivity -- to some antibiotic drugmakers. But disagreement arises over whether those incentives will apply only to drugs that treat 'serious or life-threatening conditions,' as the Senate bill does, or to almost any antibiotic, as House Republicans prefer." Brett Norman in Politico.

Domestic Policy

The farm bill markup was delayed. "After a steady drumbeat of Southern grumbling, the Senate Agriculture Committee abruptly announced Tuesday night that it was postponing action on its new draft farm bill, a 900-page giant promising $26.4 billion in savings over the next decade, largely by ending the current system of direct cash payments and reinvesting in new forms of crop insurance. Aides to Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) had earlier insisted that the scheduled markup Wednesday morning would go ahead as planned, but Tuesday evening, this decision was reversed...Within the commodity title itself, about $50.2 billion would be saved by repealing current subsidies, chiefly the cash payments. From these savings, $28.8 billion would then be invested in a novel revenue insurance program that would give farmers added protection against 'shallow losses' -- not covered now by traditional crop insurance." David Rogers in Politico.

The NLRB is under fire. "Resistance to new National Labor Relations Board regulations and to the legitimacy of some members is making it harder for the Obama administration to change federal labor policies. In recent weeks, a federal appeals court halted a new NLRB requirement that employers hang a poster informing workers of their right to join a union, and a soda bottler the board ruled against in a union dispute brought a lawsuit saying the ruling is moot. The bottler argues that because President Barack Obama didn't seek the Senate's approval when he added three new members to the board in January, the new members are illegitimate, leaving the board without the quorum it needs to issue orders. The challenges to the board's authority could block an avenue for the Obama administration to show support for organized labor, an important ally in the coming presidential election." Melanie Trottman in The Wall Street Journal.

But the Senate voted down an anti-NLRB measure. "The Senate on Tuesday voted down a Republican-backed motion intended to block a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rule to speed up union elections. In a largely party-line vote, the Senate, as expected, voted 45 to 54 to defeat S.J. Res 36, a motion of disapproval on the NLRB ruling, halting GOP efforts to block the union election rule from taking effect. Leading up to the vote, Senate Republicans warned that allowing the rule to stand would unfairly burden employers and open up the floodgates for unnecessary regulations that would hinder job creation. GOP lawmakers described the rule as an 'ambush' on employers...Senate Democrats, though, maintained the rule would not harm job creation or hurt employers, but would simply modernize union rules and protect workers' rights...The White House on Monday had threatened to veto the GOP measure, calling the NLRB election ruling 'commonsense.'" Daniel Strauss in The Hill.

Postal reform advanced in the Senate. "The Senate on Tuesday defeated a Republican attempt to block a vote on a bill to save the struggling Postal Service. The vote was 62 to 37. The Senate had hoped to have a final vote on the legislation on Tuesday, but Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, raised a point of order to try to derail the bill. Now a final vote could come Wednesday on the wide-ranging measure, which would allow the Postal Service to study the elimination of Saturday deliveries and to provide a broader range of potentially lucrative services like delivering beer and wine for retailers. The bill would also provide retirement incentives for cutting some of the agency’s 547,000 positions and would restructure benefit programs, including stretching out and reducing payments for the health benefits of future retirees over a 40-year period. Mr. Sessions and three other Republican senators...argued that the bill would add $34 billion to the national debt." Ron Nixon in The New York Times.

The U.S. will help erroneously deported immigrants return. "The Justice Department said Tuesday that it inadvertently misled the Supreme Court in January 2009 by asserting that officials routinely 'facilitate' the return of erroneously deported immigrants, but it said new procedures would now ensure that the government's practices matched its earlier assertions. The issue mainly involves lawful U.S. residents the government seeks to deport, typically because they have been convicted of a crime. The government often deports such people while their immigration appeals are pending in federal court...The public advocate's office at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will provide 'one-stop shopping' for immigrants who prevail on the merits in their immigration appeals...An immigrant who wins can notify that office, which will verify the claim and then make arrangements with the State Department and Customs and Border Protection agency to provide the person with the papers needed to return to the U.S., officials said." Jess Bravin in The Wall Street Journal.

@DKThomp: The U.S. today has more immigrants from Mexico alone--12.0 million--than any other country in the world has from all countries of the world.

Animals who think they are human interlude: A frog sits on a bench.

Energy

The tax credit for wind energy is in limbo. "Congress is taking the wind out of turbine sales. And that's despite support from President Barack Obama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a substantial roster of House Republicans who see extending the wind tax credit as an electoral imperative...The credit doesn't expire until the end of this year, but turbine makers are already feeling pain because developers can't afford to lay bets that Congress will sort it out later. The bottom line: It takes a long time to get projects up and running, and, amid tight budgets, subsidy scandals and election-year politics, there’s no guarantee that this tax break will catch a tailwind in time to avoid a crippling interruption in production...The production tax credit is not permanent and must be renewed periodically, unlike some provisions for the oil and gas industry. It was created in 1992 to provide incentives for the wind industry, which at the time was relatively tiny, but within the last decade, wind power has picked up speed at an almost exponential rate." Alex Guillen in Politico.

Train safety may get lost in the fight over transportation funding. "A decades-long push to enhance train safety may get derailed in the latest congressional battle over transportation funding. At issue lies the euphemistically named positive train control, a braking mechanism that uses GPS, sensors and other technology to prevent impending collisions. Lawmakers heralded the system after a California train catastrophe killed 25 people and injured 130 in 2008. The tragedy sparked legislation that required installation on trains that carry passengers and those lugging hazardous materials by 2015. Times have changed. Now the railroad industry wants a delay, saying the costs -- $10 billion-plus -- vastly outweigh the benefits. And they’re encouraging lawmakers to embed an extension in the final transportation bill...The lobbying powerhouse has convinced House Republicans, who added a section to their transportation bill delaying PTC implementation until 2020 and offering another safety option for certain tracks." Jessica Meyers in Politico.

@AndrewRestuccia: Sec Salazar: "Nobody has the ability, not even Harry Potter, to wave a magic wand and say that we’re going to have gas prices at $2.50"

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
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