Less than four months away from Election Day, Mitt Romney remains a virtual blank slate on policy — and that’s causing consternation among conservatives.
On issue after issue, Romney has offered sweeping promises to steer the nation on a different course than President Obama has been. But while he seeks to exploit Obama’s fundamental vulnerability — the persistently weak economy — he is giving voters few hints on what he’d do if given the wheel.
“I don’t think you can beat an incumbent president, even if the economy is slow, if 27 percent of the voters [according to a recent Fox poll] think you as the challenger don’t have a clear plan for improving the economy,” Bill Kristol, editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News Sunday.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board tore into Romney last week for trying to “play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it’s Mr. Obama’s fault,” arguing instead that Romney needs to offer “some understanding of why the President’s policies aren’t working and how Mr. Romney’s policies will do better.”
In most areas, Romney’s platform appears designed to avoid getting specific at all costs.
Romney wants to cut taxes beneath existing levels and make up for the trillions in lost revenue by closing tax loopholes — but he hasn’t identified a loophole he’d close. Apart from broad ideas like block-granting Medicaid, he hasn’t specified what federal programs he’d slash. His vow to roll back Obama’s military cuts and Medicare cuts is hard to square with his promise to also reduce the deficit. Although Romney has offered praise for the budget plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), he has been careful to keep his distance from the specifics.
On health care, Romney has embraced the GOP mantra to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But his own ideas — which hint at sympathy for patchwork reforms popular among Republicans — are so ambiguous they hardly amount to a proposal.
The candidate’s blueprint hints at a potentially major overhaul of the health care system by vowing to “End tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance” — which could mean upending the employer-based structure that the system is built around. But he hasn’t elaborated on how he’d do it.
On immigration, Romney has slowly backed off his hardline restrictionist position from the primaries, muddying what was a reasonably clear stance with broad declarations that he’ll “find a long-term solution” and address immigration “in a civil but resolute manner.”
His lack of specificity recently came into focus in a speech responding to President Obama’s move to administratively grant work authorization to an elite group of DREAM-eligible undocumented youth. Romney took no position on the policy, instead pledging to “replace and supersede” it if elected. He didn’t say how.
That formula serves to paper over a dilemma Romney faces: balancing the purist inclinations of the GOP’s conservative base with the more moderate solutions that independents and key demographics are looking for. In a way, dodging the details is a politically safer route than alienating important constituencies.
But Romney’s lack of a concrete vision has left the field wide open for Democrats to define the candidate as a rich elitist, with attacks on his record at Bain Capital and, more recently, the carpet-bombing over his offshore bank accounts. A new USA Today poll finds that among battleground state voters who say ads have changed their minds, 76 percent say they now support Obama while just 16 say they’ve switched to Romney.
GOP stalwart Haley Barbour defended Romney’s policy ambiguity Sunday, conceding that he needs to “give people something to vote for” but that it’s merely “a matter of timing.”
“I think right now Romney is smart to wait before he starts laying out proposal after proposal,” Barbour said Sunday on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” “But he ultimately will.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.