A Disappointing Presidential Campaign Comes to an End

By :: November 1st, 2012

With the U.S. facing huge domestic policy challenges, one might have hoped for a serious debate on fiscal issues between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One would have been deeply disappointed.

Rather than framing what seem to be profoundly different views of government, the candidates chose to double-down on what Bill Clinton memorably called the politics of personal destruction.

Obama’s overarching message: Vote for me because Romney is the reincarnation of Gordon Gekko, a greedy buy-out king who cares only about padding the pockets of the country club set. Romney’s own campaign boiled down to this: Vote for me because the economy is a mess and it is all Obama’s fault.  

Both stories resonate with many voters, so why bother with issues. Sure, each has his five-point plan (Romney’s articulated far better than Obama’s). But given the weak economy, the nation’s rapidly growing debt, and huge questions over the future of programs such as Medicare, both men offered remarkably few policy details. Throughout this endless campaign they have been selling pixie dust and promises, not fiscal reality. Let’s review.

Obama slalomed through the entire election season with barely a single new idea. He believes government should play a role in boosting economic growth but his plan—for better education, energy independence, etc.-- seems largely disconnected from the state of the real economy. These may be good ideas, but they won’t pay off for years.

And while Obama gives lip service to the need for deficit reduction, he continues to insist that it can be achieved through gauzy promises of  largely unspecified spending cuts and new taxes on the rich. Those making $200,000 or less will pay no more, he says, though there simply are not enough people in the top tax brackets to finance the government we say we want.

Similarly, the president promises a big cut in corporate tax rates, but identifies only a handful of small base-broadeners to pay for this initiative—reductions in tax subsidies for oil and gas companies and owners of corporate jets, and new rules aimed at forcing multinationals to pay higher U.S. taxes. Trouble is, he’s already promised to use these same tax hikes to lower the deficit. And even a president can’t use the same money twice.  

Then there is Romney. The former Massachusetts governor rarely lets a day pass without decrying the nation’s “crushing debt.” Yet, add up his specific campaign promises and Romney would add trillions of dollars to that crushing debt. Where the next president will have to cut spending and raise taxes, Romney has told us only where he would boost spending and cut taxes.

Romney insists he’ll balance the budget in eight years by cutting federal spending to 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Yet, he promises to increase defense funding, roll back the 2010 health law’s cuts to Medicare providers and insurance companies, and let the rest of Medicare grow unabated for current beneficiaries.    

He has identified only two spending programs worthy of cuts—public broadcasting and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Combined, these would reduce the trillion dollar deficit by about $500 million, less than a rounding error.

On the tax side, Romney promises to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, then cut individual rates by 20 percent across the board, repeal the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and repeal the tax hikes in the 2010 health law. He vows to pay for all this by scaling back hundreds of billions of dollars of tax preferences but has refused to identify a single one. Romney presents an assertion, not a plan.  

For the longest time, Romney refused to describe any revenue option. In the past month, he changed his obfuscation strategy. Instead of saying nothing about how he’d pay for his tax cuts, he threw out multiple ideas. But when challenged on each, his campaign insisted these were not his proposals. Adding, of course, a dollop of theatrical outrage that anyone would presume they were.

How do both men get away with dodging these critical fiscal issues?  Simple. We let them. The media charge off on gaffe-patrol, while too often ignoring the consequences of what these guys actually promise. Besides, voters have a record of punishing politicians who talk honestly about painful choices. Thus, pols have learned they are far more likely to be criticized for what they do say than for what they do not. 

My Tax Policy Center colleague Gene Steuerle writes a regular column called The Government We Deserve. Indeed it is.


  1. Michael Bindner  ::  9:47 pm on November 1st, 2012:

    Its not just the big two. When I ran in Americans Elect, most of the candidates did not offer specific proposals. I did, however, no body scored them because I was an unknown, aside from the tax policy community. It would have been refreshing if you had done me a solid and scored my plan. I suspect that avoiding negative scoring on matters that need to be negotiated is why no one gave detailed fiscal plans, although I reject the contention that Obama did not have a plan on the table. He does – it was his budget proposals from a speech in spring of 2011, which he would have advanced if he had a partner on the other side willing to negotiate on them. The fact that the Tea Party members in the GOP resistance front (also known as the Republican Study Group) insisted on no dealing explains why not detailed plan is offered.

  2. AMTbuff  ::  12:31 am on November 2nd, 2012:

    Blame the voters. They still prefer pie in the sky to harsh reality. Romney’s campaign sounds like “tax reform without losers”, while Obama’s campaign sounds like “Re-elect the not-Romney”. Hardly inspirational.

    Howard, you are wrong about political personal destruction. Only Obama is doing that. Romney is taking the traditional “avoid difficult issues and question the other guy’s policy” approach. He has never questioned Obama’s personal character or tried to dig up dirt from his personal life.

    Romney showed a high degree of fiscal concern when he chose Ryan. Romney will try to do something big. But we haven’t heard the details because swing voters aren’t going to like ANY fiscally sane policy.

    Reagan’s math didn’t add up either, but he backtracked in 1982 and 1984 and all that led to the boom in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Presidents trim their promises to fit reality. At least they did until recent years.

    One candidate has indicated fiscal concern via the VP choice. The other candidate has demonstrated unconcern, including enacting an massive new entitlement on top of existing unaffordable programs, and then dropping Bowles-Simpson like a hot potato. The choice seems clear to me.

  3. Tax Roundup, 11/2/2012: Iowa’s new approach to filmmakers affirmed. And more fertilizer! « Roth & Company, P.C  ::  10:15 am on November 2nd, 2012:

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  4. Rob in CT  ::  1:24 pm on November 2nd, 2012:

    “One candidate has indicated fiscal concern via the VP choice”

    That’s pretty amusing, considering Paul Ryan’s record. The man is a fraud.

  5. Brian Dell  ::  5:15 am on November 3rd, 2012:

    I don’t think the TPC has been especially helpful by producing distributional analyses in response to specific proposals and not accompanying these studies with much argument for why the proposal might be more efficient or growth friendly even though it might be regressive.

    We need more revenue but most proposals along the lines of a gas tax hike or shift from taxing investment to taxing consumption end up getting shot down with an assist from the TPC because the TPC usually says these sorts of proposals make the system less progressive.

    When you’ve got 47% (or whatever it is) not paying federal income tax already and the TPC effectively enshrines that by being so quick on the draw to shoot anything that might ask for a dollar out of this group, the revenue raising options are being overly constrained.

    I think the TPC should stop using the status quo as a benchmark and use international comparisons for its equality assessments instead, e.g. Sweden, Germany, Canada. I would like to see a comparison between California and, say, Alberta to see if California is not already quite progressive such that a bit less so isn’t automatically beyond the pale.

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