The massive policy gap between Obama and Romney

The central difficulty of covering this presidential campaign -- which is to say, of explaining Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s disparate plans for the country -- is the continued existence of what we might call the policy gap. The policy gap, put simply, is this: Obama has proposed policies. Mitt Romney hasn’t.

It is important to say that this exists separately from any judgments about the quality of either man’s policies. You can believe every idea Obama has proposed is a socialist horror inspired by Kenyan revenge fantasies. This would, I think, be a strange judgment to reach about plans to invest in infrastructure, temporarily double the size of the payroll tax cuts and raise the marginal tax rate on income over $250,000 by 4.5 percentage points. Nevertheless, Obama’s policy proposals are sufficiently detailed that they can be fully assessed and conclusions -- even odd ones -- confidently drawn. Romney’s policies are not.

Obama has released detailed policy proposals. Romney hasn't. (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals. They do not include the details necessary to judge Romney’s policy ideas. In many cases, they don’t contain any details at all.

Take taxes. Romney has promised a “permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates,” alongside a grab bag of other goodies, like the end of “the death tax.” Glenn Hubbard, his top economic adviser, has promised that the plan will “broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral.”

It is in the distance between “cut in marginal rates” and “revenue-neutral” that all the policy happens. That is where Romney must choose which deductions to cap or close. It’s where we learn what his plan means for the mortgage-interest deduction, and the tax-free status of employer health plans and the Child Tax Credit. It is where we learn, in other words, what his plan means for people like you and me. And it is empty. Romney does not name even one deduction that he would cap or close. He even admitted, in an interview with CNBC, that his plan “can’t be scored because those details have to be worked out.”

Compare that to Obama’s tax plan, which you can read on pages 37 through 40 of his 2013 budget proposal (though not, it should be said, on his campaign Web site, which is even less detailed than Romney’s). In these pages, Obama tells you exactly how he would like to raise taxes on the rich. He proposes allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for income over $250,000, capping itemized deductions for wealthy Americans at 28 percent, taxing carried interest as ordinary income and more. The total tax increase, compared to current policy, is $1.5 trillion.

Whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to raise taxes on the rich, Obama has told you exactly what he wants to do. Conversely, whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to cut marginal tax rates by broadening the base, Romney hasn’t actually told you what he wants to do.

The same is true in other policy areas. In health care, for instance, Obama signed the multi-thousand page Affordable Care Act into law, and has backed a number of specific reforms that would build upon the policy, including giving states waivers to go their own way while meeting the law’s standards and giving the independent Medicare board more power over benefit packages. Obama’s vision for the health-care system is almost absurdly detailed.

Romney’s plan spans 369 words. He would “promote alternatives to ‘fee for service.’” Which alternatives? It’s a mystery. He would “end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance.” That can mean any of a couple of huge policy changes. It could mean, for the first time ever, that employer-provided health plans are taxed -- a massive tax increase. It could mean that all spending on health insurance is made tax free -- a giant, and expensive, tax cut. Which is it? Romney doesn’t say.

On financial regulation, Romney would “repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That is literally his entire plan. Three years after a homegrown financial crisis wrecked the global economy, the likely Republican nominee for president would repeal the new regulatory architecture and replace it with … something.

On deficit reduction, Romney’s plan “requires spending cuts of approximately $500 billion per year in 2016.” He has not released spending cuts that come anywhere close to that goal. He does have some nice words to say about the Ryan budget, but Romney advisers have told the media that their candidate disagrees with large parts of it, including the Medicare cuts.

The comparison to Obama is, again, instructive. Pages 23 through 37 of Obama’s budget detail dozens of spending cuts and tell you how much money they’ll save. You might not like those spending cuts, or you might want to see more. But at least you know the specifics of the president’s plan.

You might say that this is the natural result of an incumbent running against a challenger. Obama, by virtue of being president, has to develop detailed policies, and he oversees a massive bureaucracy able to help him get specific. Romney, by virtue of his not yet having Obama’s job, does not.

But in 2008, John McCain ran on a far more detailed policy platform than Romney. To name just one example, like Romney, McCain promised to end the tax code’s discrimination against health insurance bought by individuals. But he told us how he would do it: by taxing employer-based insurance and using the savings to give families a $5,000 tax credit to put toward buying health insurance. Nor has Romney released anything that matches "Renewing America's Purpose," the 457-page policy book that George W. Bush released during the 2000 election. Romney's vagueness is unique among modern presidential campaigns.

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. That means he has refused to give voters the most basic information necessary for them to make an informed choice this November. That’s not acceptable. And neither voters nor the media should accept it.



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Dylan Matthews · August 6, 2012