Mitt Aims for the Mainstream

Romney’s Economic Plan Befits a Candidate Who Thinks He Is Going to Win But Lacks Outside-the-Box Creativity, Sticking to Conservative Principles

Posted October 17, 2011 at 5:14pm

“Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” is the work of a frontrunner.

Whether the former Massachusetts governor is really the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination or he just plays one on TV is a moving target. But when reading his 59-point plan for economic recovery, I was struck by how often I came across a proposal that I had never seen before.

That would be never.

All of Romney’s ideas are tried-and-true baseline conservative Republican ideas. Many have been introduced as legislation by GOP Members of Congress, including the Senate Republican jobs bill introduced last week.

None could be classified as out of the mainstream, radical or even outside the box. It’s as if he was thinking, “I’m ahead, why rock the boat?”

That’s to be expected. Radical ideas are much more likely to come from candidates who are trying to get noticed (see Cain, Herman and Gingrich, Newt) than those who already have been.

But Romney talks the game of a “transformational” leader — that was the word employed by vanquished foe Tim Pawlenty when the former Minnesota governor endorsed Romney last month.

“Believe in America” is a thoughtful document full of policy proposals that could actually become law, but it does not live up to that standard.

Romney has taken some good-natured ribbing for the extent of the plan. Fellow candidate Cain jabbed him at the Oct. 11 New Hampshire debate for the plan’s lack of simplicity.

After extolling the supposed virtues of his own “9-9-9” tax plan, he asked Romney, “Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral?”

Romney’s response — “simple answers are always very helpful, but often times inadequate” — was effective in the context of the debate.

But Cain, whose own plan has come under withering criticism from conservatives, points out a potential pitfall for Romney — lots of idea-men have failed for lack of the ability to boil their thoughts down to an easily digestible message.

Even President Woodrow Wilson, who was a political science professor for Pete’s sake, needed only 14 points.

Structurally, “Believe in America” is what it appears to be: the work of an accomplished campaign team headed by a candidate familiar with the substance and style of corporate reports.

It is meticulously organized, easy to navigate and makes good use of stylish graphics.

It drops names like Joan Rivers does on the red carpet — management guru Peter Drucker, Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy all make appearances.

Each section includes a vignette from a guest writer. McNealy offers the best of these, a spirited and well-reasoned defense of Romney’s Iowa comment about corporations being people.

“What’s shocking here,” McNealy writes in response to Democratic criticism of the remark, “is actually that Democratic politicians believe they are scoring a point. The attitudes they display toward corporations explain a good deal about the current status of our economy after three years of Barack Obama’s failed attempts to bring down the rate of unemployment.”

The vignettes, in fact, make for the most interesting reading because this is, for the most part, pretty tame stuff. Certainly, there’s nothing here as radical as Cain’s 9-9-9 proposal.

Take the five bills Romney says he’ll send to Congress on the first day of his administration.

One would reduce the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent — not exactly an exhortation to tear down this wall.

Another would implement free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. With last week’s passage in Congress of all three, it appears that will be done well before January 2013.

A third calls for a survey of energy reserves. That’s right, a survey.

And he wants a $20 billion cut in non-security discretionary spending. If you’re scoring at home, that’s considerably less than 1 percent of federal spending.

Which is to say that when Romney is at the height of his power at the beginning of his administration, he is aiming at some of the lowest hanging Republican fruit imaginable.

Romney’s proposed day one executive orders are somewhat less timid — he says he would label China a currency manipulator and offer health care overhaul waivers to all comers as a prelude to seeking repeal of the 2010 law.

Tea partyers looking for a conservative revolution are not likely to be overly impressed by “Believe in America,” although it could be argued that any version of truly conservative governance would be revolutionary in a city that hasn’t seen such a thing in living memory.

Most mainline conservatives looking for a workable proposal with a decent chance of being enacted will be reasonably satisfied with the plan.

If Romney can find a way to bridge the gap between those two groups even a little bit, he’ll be the nominee.