Romney Wants to Run Against Nothing at All

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Photo: Alex Wong/2012 Getty Images

As Mitt Romney embraces Paul Ryan and his budget plan more tightly, the campaign debate is increasingly centered around the philosophical contrast between the two plans. Obama wants to make the debate about priorities. Republicans want to make the debate about which side is more serious. Indeed, the Republican message increasingly is coming to frame the debate not as a contest between Ryan’s budget and Obama’s budget, but as a contest between Ryan’s budget and doing nothing at all.

Phillip Klein of the Washington Examiner has a scare graph of the budget deficit’s projected future explosion. The graph turns out to be a measurement of the Congressional Budget Office’s prediction of the scary deficit if we keep current policies in place. But that isn’t Obama’s budget proposal. He has a proposal, and CBO has measured it, and it finds the debt stabilizing as a percentage of GDP.

Likewise, James Capretta, a conservative pundit and advisor to Paul Ryan, accuses Obama of having no plan. Read carefully to the third and fourth sentences:

And what does the president propose to do about this problem? Exactly nothing.

His plan for deficit reduction can be summed up briefly: tax hikes and defense cuts.

I have inserted no ellipses here. Capretta first accuses Obama of proposing “exactly nothing,” and then — in the very next sentence! — accuses him of proposing to raise taxes and cut defense spending. That’s not “exactly nothing.” It’s not even sort of nothing. It’s something. Now, it doesn’t fit Capretta’s preferred answer, which is to reduce social spending. But it is clearly true that increasing taxes and cutting defense spending frees up more budgetary room to maintain social spending.

Mind you, it’s not actually true that Obama has no plan to restrain entitlement spending. Obamacare actually limits the growth of Medicare by the same amount the Ryan budget does. Watch Mitt Romney attempt to simultaneously assail Obama for his brutal plan to cut Medicare and for having no plan to cut Medicare:

“I’d be willing to consider the president’s plan, but he doesn’t have one. That’s right: In over three years, he has failed to enact or even propose a serious plan to solve our entitlement crisis,” Romney said in a speech to the Newspaper Association of America in Washington, D.C. “Instead, he has taken a series of steps that end Medicare as we know it. He is the only president to ever cut $500 billion from Medicare. And, as a result, more than half of doctors say they will cut back on treating seniors.”

Obama’s nonexistent Medicare plan will cut hundreds of billions from Medicare!

Now, it is true that the Ryan plan would produce a somewhat lower deficit, on paper, than the Obama plan. After a decade, the Ryan plan would leave a defecit of a little under 2 percent of GDP, while the Obama budget would produce a deficit of about 3 percent of GDP. But the Ryan plan relies largely upon budget savings it refuses to specify. The budget would need to eliminate about $5 trillion worth of tax deductions, and refuses to name a single example. It does specify huge cuts in spending on the poor, and aside from that, it would impose extremely severe limits on non-entitlement spending without saying what programs would be cut. This vagueness serves a very specific purpose: It insulates Republicans from having to defend any of the specific cuts (other than the cuts to poor people, who are a politically safe target.) If you want to watch this dynamic in action, here is Obama trying to point out the harm these enormous cuts to domestic spending would bring about:

The year after next, nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each.  There would be 1,600 fewer medical grants, research grants for things like Alzheimer’s and cancer and AIDS.  There would be 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students, and teachers.  Investments in clean energy technologies that are helping us reduce our dependence on foreign oil would be cut by nearly a fifth. …

Now, you can anticipate Republicans may say, well, we’ll avoid some of these cuts — since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make.  But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas.  This is math.  If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement.

As Obama pretty carefully explains, Republicans aren’t specifying how they’d carry this out. Some programs would be cut more deeply than others, but because Republicans won’t say how they’ll do it, they don’t have to defend any actual cuts at all.

And here is Romney’s response to Obama:

Among Obama’s untrue assertions, Romney said, was that the $5.3 trillion in cuts the budget plan envisions over the next decade would be applied equally to all programs.

“Of course you wouldn’t cut programs on a proportional basis. There would be some programs that you would eliminate outright — Obamacare being first on the list,” Romney said.

Obviously, if you just read Obama’s remarks, he specifically said the cuts would not be applied equally. Indeed, Romney is saying exactly what Obama predicted Republicans would say — we won’t cut those programs, we’ll cut something else, but we won’t say what. (By the way, Obamacare is not one of the programs Obama listed — it is not part of the domestic discretionary budget he was describing there. The GOP plan to eliminate that coverage is on top of the other cuts.) Leaving most of them unspecified allows Republicans to claim all the savings while bearing none of the political responsibility for advocating them. It’s all to be determined later. If you take their proposal at face value, it implies the total disappearance of the non-entitlement, non-defense portion of the federal government.

Now, this strategy is all in keeping with my oft-repeated maxim that Americans oppose government in the abstract and favor it in the particulars. Republicans are maneuvering to keep the debate on the general, promising to cut government programs without naming them. (Except, again, for programs that benefit the poor. Those can be named.) Republicans only have a more serious plan if you accept at face value their ability to carry out massive savings on both the tax side and the spending side that they refuse to name.