Democrats, who just a few weeks ago were bemoaning the state of the Obama campaign, are suddenly ecstatic over its bare-knuckle tactics. Never mind that the over-the-top insinuation of possible criminality on Mitt Romney’s part is something they’d deem outrageous if directed Obama’s way. For his part, Romney quickly went from (supposedly) high-minded indignation at Team Obama’s tone to turning loose John H. Sununu, the former Granite State governor and long-time political pitbull, to snarl that Obama should “learn how to be an American.” Sununu later apologized for using those words, even as he launched a new round of harsh, headline-hunting hyperbole.
Now, absent the unapologized-for “felony” comment, targeting Romney’s Bain Capital record and highlighting his refusal to release more tax returns is fair game; Romney, after all, has made his business career his campaign calling card.
Yet this is not an issue likely to sustain the campaign. Bigger matters should dominate. One will be the anemic economic recovery, a dangerous ebb tide Obama will have to battle.
But the Republican challenger has a very large problem of his own: the GOP’s fiscal approach. Romney obviously hopes to run as a business wunderkind offering enticing tax-cut treats, while leaving his how-to-pay-for plans too vaporous to pin down. Problem: During the primaries, Romney warmly embraced House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s fiscal framework. Further problem: Romney’s own fiscal plans are alike enough to Ryan’s that the consequences would be similar.
Ryan’s plan may seem complicated, but conceptually, it’s not. Nor is it the reasonable, common-sense approach he and Romney would have you believe.
Consider: All the recent fiscal commissions have said addressing the long-term federal fiscal deficit will require both cuts in projected spending and additional revenues. Flying in the face of that bipartisan-commission consensus, Ryan instead insists that all the deficit reduction must be done on the spending side. He says all the Bush tax cuts must be kept — and that we need another huge tax cut as well. Because he’d deal with the existing deficit solely on the spending side, Medicare and Medicaid would take big hits. (In a clever political move, current and soon-to-be Medicare recipients would be sheltered.) Federal spending for things like education would be slashed. As for his new round of tax cuts, which would disproportionately benefit upper earners, Ryan says he’d offset its cost by closing loopholes and deductions — but he won’t say which ones.
Although Romney’s details are somewhat different, his overall approach is similar. He too calls for retaining all the Bush tax cuts and for doing all the deficit reduction on the spending and entitlement side. He too would convert Medicare from an entitlement to a voucher-like program. He too proposes another big round of tax cuts — $5 trillion over 10 years. Although his top-rate reductions wouldn’t be as large, his tax cuts would still disproportionately benefit the wealthy. He too has failed to say how he’d broaden the tax base anywhere near enough to pay for his tax cuts.
Here’s another similarity: Because both tax-cut plans would retain favored treatment for capital gains, there’s no way the lower rates on a broader base could be anywhere near as progressive as the current system, says James Horney, vice president for federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.
So how would the Ryan budget affect the race if voters were more aware of its consequences?
In a recent survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm, likely voters gave Obama a 49 to 46 percent lead over Romney. When respondents learned about the cuts the Ryan budget would mean for entitlements and other domestic programs, Obama’s lead grew slightly. When the effect on the working poor was highlighted, Obama ended up with a 51-43 margin.
How this nation addresses its long-term fiscal problems is a huge issue, one that highlights stark differences in the candidates’ and the parties’ philosophies, priorities, and values.
It’s an issue Republicans will try to obfuscate by claiming, speciously, that our long-term deficit results mostly from recent hikes in spending, ignoring the large role played by tax cuts and entitlements for retiring baby-boomers.
Granted, it can be difficult to explain the truth and outline the consequences to voters. But it’s worth the time and effort, for how we solve our fiscal problems is not just a dusty green-eyeshade issue. It’s fundamental to what sort of country the United States will be in the decades ahead.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter