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SPIN METER: Romney roadmap leaves voters guessing

By Steve Peoples
Associated Press / April 23, 2012
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BOSTON—Mitt Romney's roadmap for governing the country is so vague that it has even Republican allies questioning his intentions.

"You have to campaign to govern, not just to win," Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in recent days after endorsing Romney. "Go ahead and have the confidence in the voters to explain the fix we're in and then tell them with some specificity what we can do to get out of it in a way that's good for everybody. Romney doesn't talk that way."

It's a sentiment other Republicans decline to express so publicly, and Daniels later downplayed his comment. But it's one that accurately describes the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's general aversion to detail.

In between heaping criticism on President Barack Obama, Romney spent the primary season sketching a broad conservative vision for leading the country should he win the White House. Supporters cheer his general plans for lower taxes, smaller government, a stronger military and a reduced federal deficit. But he's offered few detailed prescriptions on a range of the country's most pressing concerns from Social Security to potential military action in Iran. And in some cases where Romney and his aides have been specific, the former Massachusetts governor offers little significant change from the Democratic president he says is killing the American dream.

The tactic is, of course, by design for a candidate eager to make the general election a referendum on Obama's first term. The less voters know about Romney, the more they may focus on Obama. By avoiding difficult policy decisions, Romney gives his opponents less fuel for political attacks.

The Obama campaign has noticed. And as the president's team works to tie Romney to the GOP's more conservative wing, Democrats are aggressively criticizing what they call Romney's "secrecy strategy."

"Mitt Romney's campaign has been based on one thing -- deceptively attacking the president's record. He's been purposefully vague about what he'd do as president," Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said. "If he wants to be taken seriously in this race, he needs to put money where his mouth is and provide some honest answers."

The Romney campaign says it has been more forthcoming than Obama in some areas, particularly on budget fixes for entitlement programs. Indeed, Obama has not proposed comprehensive plans to address the financial problems facing either Social Security or Medicare.

Romney has not done much better, however.

He has introduced a Medicare plan that transforms the popular health care program for seniors into a voucher system, but declines to say how much seniors may have to pay out of pocket. On Social Security, he says generally that he would raise the retirement age "for future generations."

The fuzzy positions are consistent with Romney's pattern of embracing politically popular choices -- tax cuts and smaller government, for example -- while ignoring the realities he would face as president, such as how to pay for those tax cuts or regulate business to prevent another economic meltdown. His campaign refuses to say whether he will offer specifics in some cases even before the November election.

Perhaps the most glaring example is on taxes.

Romney has released a plan to cut personal income tax rates by 20 percent across the board, dropping the top rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and the bottom rate from 10 percent to 8 percent. He also wants to cut the corporate rate from 35 to 25 percent.

The proposal, of course, is likely to win broad support among voters. Few people enjoy paying higher taxes.

But Romney has refused to say how he would pay for the plan, which would cost roughly $3.4 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the Tax Policy Center. He promises to find savings through broadening the tax base, including reducing some tax deductions. But so far, he has only hinted in closed settings as to where that money might come from.

Romney told donors at a private Palm Beach, Fla., fundraiser that he would eliminate or limit for high earners the mortgage interest deduction for second homes, a plan that would ultimately do little to pay for his tax plan, but represents his most detailed known thoughts on the matter.

Those details are known only because they were overheard by reporters on the sidewalk outside the event. And as soon as they were reported, the Romney campaign minimized their significance.

"There are a lot of different levers that can be pulled to make sure that we create a tax code that's much more growth oriented, that has lower rates, but that also generates the revenue that we need," Romney domestic policy director Oren Cass said.

He would not be more specific other than to cite the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a bipartisan panel that outlined a broad deficit-cutting plan that would wipe away most tax credits and deductions, tax capital gains as ordinary income, and increase federal gasoline taxes, among other things.

Cass was careful not to endorse any of the commission's specific recommendations.

How close is the campaign to having final details?

"I would just say we're in the middle of it," Cass said.

Romney's positions on foreign policy are equally unclear in some cases.

His rhetoric indicates that the world might expect the hawkish foreign policy prescriptions that guided President George W. Bush. But when pressed, Romney's top foreign policy adviser said he agrees with some of Obama's plans.

On Afghanistan, Romney says Obama's 2014 timeline to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces is "doable," according to foreign policy director Alex Wong.

"That's something (Romney) thinks is operable, but he emphasizes that any time frame must be conditions based," Wong said.

And on Iran, Romney declared, "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon."

Obama has not ruled out an attack, but has not been as threatening as Romney.

"If it's necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability, Gov. Romney is willing to use military action. That's obviously not the optimal choice, but you have to be willing and you have to communicate your willingness to use the military option and have it be very credible," Wong said, largely echoing Obama's position. "Barack Obama has done a lot to undermine the military option. If you look closely, he says, `Well it's on the table,' but he's never said he would use it if necessary."

Meanwhile, it's unclear if Romney will amend his strategy in the months leading up to the Nov. 6 general election. Daniels is largely alone among prominent supporters in calling for more transparency.

Cass suggested the campaign may be more forthcoming in some areas.

"I think the governor's already laid out a lot of specifics on policy," he said. "But certainly as you see the campaign progress, we will continue to provide more detail."

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Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Steven R. Hurst in Washington contributed to this report.

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