the national interest

Mitt: I Won’t Detail Plans, Because Then I’d Lose

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Capital University on February 29, 2012
You’ll have to wait until I’m elected. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mitt Romney has embraced a budget plan that would entail cutting federal programs other than defense and Social Security by more than half. It does raise the question of how he plans to carry out such a sweeping goal. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Romney says he’d eliminate a bunch of departments. But he won’t say which ones:

One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.

One of the things I have found in previous elections is that announcing my plans makes people want to vote against me!

This seems to be another case of Romney displaying his endearing but counterproductive habit of being a little too open about how the political game is played. Americans tend to oppose government in the abstract, but favor it in the specifics. This is even true of Republican voters:

Note that, other than foreign aid, only a couple categories of spending manage to eke out even a bare majority of Republicans to cut their budgets.

Eliminating departments sounds great in general. But once you start naming the departments you want to eliminate, voters might decide you lack a strong commitment to the functions of those departments! (The way, say, Mitt Romney infers a lack of strong commitment to national defense from President Obama’s plans to reducing defense spending.)

So the thing to do is advocate reduced spending in general but decline to furnish details until after the election. This is a tried-and-true conservative strategy, embraced by everyone from Ronald Reagan to Paul Ryan (who specifies severe cuts to programs for the very poor, but otherwise relies on unspecified cuts to omnibus categories, thus allowing Republicans to deny plans to cut any specific component of them.)

Republicans using this tried-and-true strategy generally steer clear of coming out and saying they won’t specify their cuts because of the election. That’s the part you’re not supposed to admit.

Mitt: I Won’t Detail Plans, Because Then I’d Lose