As it happens, we do know the most important fact of Romney’s spending plan: It would cut spending as a percentage of gross domestic product to 20 percent by 2016. And it would do so while boosting defense spending by billions of dollars. As Romney says, that would require about $500 billion in cuts in 2016 — all of which would have to come from domestic spending. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that although Romney’s numbers were correct a few months ago, recent revisions put the total closer to $600 billion.
The CBPP ran the math on the sort of cuts Romney would need to reach his target. Using a realistic baseline known as “current policy” — which assumes that George W. Bush-era tax cuts are extended and Medicare is protected from automatic cuts that Congress never permits — Romney would need to reduce all domestic spending by 20 percent to make his numbers work. But his proposal says his changes to Medicare and Social Security would affect only “younger generations,” which suggests that large cuts wouldn’t be made to those programs in the next few years. And once those programs are taken out of the mix, Romney would need to cut all domestic spending by almost 40 percent to make his numbers work.
We’re back to numbers now. So let’s try to return to narrative. If Romney cut Medicaid entirely — took it from the $407 billion it is projected to cost in 2016 and moved it to zero — his math wouldn’t work. If he then excised all spending on food stamps — taking them from a projected $80 billion in 2016 to nothing — he still wouldn’t be there.
Romney won’t do that, of course. His cuts presumably would be distributed among many, many more programs. But that thought experiment gives a sense of the size of the cuts he would need to make. And the reality is that he wouldn’t have many painless places to make them. The largest spending program left to him is Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, children and the disabled. Retirement costs for federal employees make up a large pot of money, but those promises cannot be broken. Transportation infrastructure is expensive, but roads will still need to be repaired. And so on.
The Romney team disputes the CBPP’s math, although I couldn’t get his campaign to tell me why. I’m guessing it’s because the CBPP doesn’t include its estimates of higher growth, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. The campaign says it will be releasing a more detailed list of its proposed spending cuts soon. But for now, the narrative is clear: A Romney presidency would be tough on those who depend on government programs and good for those who pay high taxes. That suggests a Romney presidency would, at least in its first few years, reduce the deficit by asking much more from the poor than from the rich. Is that really the narrative they want?