How, other than an assumption that voters are too dim to remember what Mr. Romney has said across the years and months, to account for his breathtaking ideological shifts? He was a friend of immigrants, then a scourge of immigrants, then again a friend. He was a Kissingerian foreign policy realist, then a McCain-like hawk, then a purveyor of peace. He pioneered Obamacare, he detested Obamacare, then he found elements in it to cherish. Assault weapons were bad, then good. Abortion was okay, then bad. Climate change was an urgent problem; then, not so much. Hurricane cleanup was a job for the states, until it was once again a job for the feds.
The same presumption of gullibility has infused his misleading commercials (see: Jeep jobs to China) and his refusal to lay out an agenda. Mr. Romney promised to replace the Affordable Care Act but never said with what. He promised an alternative to President Obama’s lifeline to young, undocumented immigrants but never deigned to describe it.
And then there has been his chronic, baldly dishonest defense of mathematically impossible budget proposals. He promised to cut income tax rates without exploding the deficit or tilting the tax code toward the rich — but he refused to say how he could bring that off. When challenged, he cited “studies” that he maintained proved him right. But the studies were a mix of rhetoric, unrealistic growth projections and more serious economics that actually proved him wrong.
This last is important — maybe the crux of the next four years. History has shown that it’s a lot easier to cut taxes than to reduce spending. Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush promised to do both, managed to do only the first and (with plenty of help from Congress) greatly increased the national debt.
Now Mr. Romney promises to reduce income tax rates by one-fifth — for the rich, that means from 35 percent to 28 percent — and to raise defense spending while balancing the budget. To do so, he would reduce other spending — unspecified — and take away deductions — unspecified. One of the studies he cited, by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, said Mr. Romney could make the tax math work by depriving every household earning $100,000 or more of all of its charitable deductions, mortgage-interest deductions and deductions for state and local income taxes.
Does Mr. Romney favor ending those popular tax breaks? He won’t say. But he did take issue with Mr. Feldstein’s definition of the middle class: Mr. Romney said he would protect households earning $250,000 or less. In which case the Feldstein study did not vindicate the Romney arithmetic — it refuted it. Yet the candidate has continued to cite the study.
Within limits, all candidates say and do what they have to say and do to win. Mr. Obama also has dodged serious interviews and news conferences. He has offered few specifics for a second-term agenda. He, too, aired commercials that distorted his opponent’s statements.
But Mr. Obama has a record; voters know his priorities. His budget plan is inadequate, but it wouldn’t make things worse.
Mr. Romney, by contrast, seems to be betting that voters have no memories, poor arithmetic skills and a general inability to look behind the curtain. We hope the results Tuesday prove him wrong.