The Wall Street Journal reports:
"What we're proposing is a tax reform, it's not a tax cut," a Romney campaign staffer said.
The anonymous staffer is doubtless taking his cues from the candidate himself. But it does crystallize how poorly the Romney message is being crafted. Even if Romney proposes to keep tax rates the same, that would be a tax cut compared to both current law, under which taxes are scheduled to increase dramatically because of the expiration of existing tax cuts (the payroll tax holiday, the extension of the Bush tax cuts won after Republicans won the House in 2010), and compared to President Obama's plans to increase taxes. But he's not proposing to keep rates the same; he's proposing to reduce them by 20%. Yet he still won't describe that as a tax cut.
It's enough to make a voter think that Mr. Romney actually doesn't plan to cut taxes. Because if a candidate did plan to cut taxes, he'd tell voters about it, because voters like it when they get to keep more of their own money. What Mr. Romney's tax platform is instead is a promise of tax reform in which the candidate doesn't spell out the details of the reform. Herman Cain had the 9-9-9 plan. Gary Johnson has the Fair Tax. Mitt Romney is running as a tax reformer who won't say what the tax reform is except that he's going to reduce deductions for higher-income tax payers (he won't say exactly which ones or how much he would reduce them) while giving middle-income taxpayers a "little" break.
If Mr. Romney loses, this is going to be a big part of the reason why. And if I seem critical of Mr. Romney, it's not because I'm pleased with the current president. I'm not. But with America $16 trillion in debt, 47 million Americans on food stamps, unemployment above 8%, and an American ambassador being murdered by terrorists overseas with impunity, the alternative to the failed incumbent should be leading in the polls, not even or trailing.
I understand the outlines of the dialogue about this sort of thing within the Republican camp. Tax-cut advocates say, "You've got to run as a tax-cutter. Every successful Republican presidential candidate, from Reagan to George W. Bush, has run as a tax cutter. The ones who lost were George H.W. Bush, who raised taxes, Bob Dole, who was never much of a supply-side tax cutter, and John McCain, who had criticized George W. Bush for wanting to cut taxes too much." The counterargument is something like, "Yeah, but that was then, and this is now. Times change. We now have a trillion dollar a year deficit and a $16 trillion national debt. We need the tax revenue to dig us out of those holes. If you promise to cut taxes, voters aren't going to believe you, because they know about the deficit and debt problems. The rich voters who pay a lot of taxes and who vote their economic interests are already going to vote for you because they know Obama is going to raise their taxes even more than you are. You don't need to worry about them. The poor voters who don't pay much federal taxes already and get a lot of government benefits are going to vote for Obama and aren't going to be swayed by any promises of federal tax cuts. So instead of promising an overall tax cut, just promise a tax 'reform' that will shift the burden around a bit to favor those middle-to-upper-middle-class suburban swing voters who backed Obama the last time but if they vote for you this time could win you the election."
The tax-cut-advocates can reply, "Well, that's fine tactical political advice, but what about the underlying principle, that individuals can spend their own money better than the politicians and their lobbyist pals in Washington can, and that, beyond what's needed for a minimal effective government, people deserve to keep what they earn and own? That's one of your main points of contrast with President Obama, and by going vague or wan on this tax issue, you're blurring it."