September 24, 2012

NOW WE GET IT: Mitt Romney’s refusal to specify what tax breaks he proposes eliminating is not a matter of dangling tantalizing goodies in front of voters now, before the election, and postponing the painful part until later. No, Mr. Romney’s dodging is, he claimed in an interview broadcast Sunday, an example of his strong leadership skills.

Pressed by CBS News’s Scott Pelley about his failure to provide details, Mr. Romney instead lauded his fuzziness. “It’s very much consistent with my experience as a governor which is, if you want to work together with people across the aisle, you lay out your principles and your policy, you work together with them, but you don’t hand them a complete document and say, ‘Here, take this or leave it,’ ” Mr. Romney said on “60 Minutes.” “Look, leadership is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. We’ve seen too much of that in Washington.”

This is leading by ducking. Mr. Romney is right that the American people do not benefit from intransigent, my-way-or-the-highway governing. But his answer ignores the difference between maintaining flexibility and hiding your cards from the people whose votes you seek. If leadership means never having to get specific, why then does Mr. Romney identify a particular number — 20 percent — for the amount he wants to cut rates? The answer is obvious: voter appeal.

By contrast, achieving those cuts in a way that does not add trillions to the deficit, as Mr. Romney claims he will do, would require major, painful and politically controversial restrictions on allowable deductions. Breaks for everything from home mortgage interest to employer-sponsored health insurance to state and local taxes would be on the table. Mr. Romney’s version of leadership may be to avoid specifics; we think a more courageous leader would trust voters with a menu that includes both dessert (rate cuts) and spinach (limited deductions). Bold leadership would be to spell out a plausible, though not set in stone, pathway to a broader tax base; it would be to let voters know what they’re buying, rather than ask them to sign onto a details-to-follow tax plan.

It’s understandable, if not admirable, that Mr. Romney prefers not to level with voters about what it would take to lower rates as much as he proposes without losing revenue. Hearing Mr. Romney congratulate himself for this dodge is a bit much.