Friday, July 13, 2012
In numerous national polls, Mitt Romney is in a dead heat with President Obama. But many conservatives are dissatisfied with Romney’s campaign. They want to hear more, especially on the policy front. From the Wall Street Journal editorial page to National Review Online, calls for specificity have grown from a murmur to a clamor.
As we chat on Capitol Hill, Jim Talent, a top Romney policy adviser, acknowledges the blank-slate tag that has dogged Romney for months. But with respect to the critics, he says, such complaints are unwarranted. “I would really encourage people to follow what he’s saying day to day, because he has a very detailed agenda,” Talent tells me.
Talent, a former senator from Missouri, has been in Washington this week huddling with Republican lawmakers. The case he has made in those conversations has been relatively simple: Romney has already unveiled most of his policy platform for the general election, so do not expect any flashy, new proposals.
“On policy matters, there will not be some kind of October surprise,” Talent says. “Most of Governor Romney’s policies, both foreign and domestic, have already been outlined. You have seen some additions in the last couple of months, and you’ll see a few more, but they will elaborate on what he’s already talked about,” and they won’t “shock” voters.
But what about a big-picture vision? Conservatives worry that Romney wants to make this election a referendum on Obama, not a choice between conservative and liberal policies. Talent disagrees: “Governor Romney understands that this is a ‘choice’ election, and that’s what he wants,” he says. “He wants to win the election on terms where he can say, honestly, that the American people had a real choice.
“Look, if you review what he has talked about, Governor Romney has offered a more comprehensive agenda for change than anyone I can remember who has run for president since Ronald Reagan,” Talent continues. “And he has spoken clearly about what he wants to do right away.”
On health care, for example, Romney has been adamant that he will repeal the president’s health-care law, Talent says — and at this point in the debate, that’s enough. “We’ve not had tactical discussions with people,” he says. “Now, if he wins the election as we hope,” then Romney will begin to review various options. But for the moment, Boston will stick to highlighting broad themes.
“Governor Romney has proposed a lot of specific things in terms of replacement, such has pooling coverage with association health plans, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, and medical-malpractice reform,” Talent says. “From now until November, he will promote these good ideas about empowerment and conservative reform.”
“Now, has he sat down and talked with anyone about the specifics about what would be in any particular bill? I’ve not been part of those discussions,” Talent says. He expects Romney to emphasize full repeal, period, in the run-up to the election, along with some snippets and previews of what a Romney-presidency replacement could look like.
Romney has better impressed conservatives on education, which he discussed in his speech to the NAACP in Houston earlier this week. Whereas the former governor’s views on his preferred health-care system can often seem nebulous, Romney’s education reforms are easily catalogued. His support for charter schools has been a constant element of his campaign, and in Texas, he pledged to “link” federal education funds to individual students, enabling them to attend the schools of their choosing.
Foreign and defense policy is an area where Romney has not gotten enough credit, Talent argues. From No Apology, the policy book Romney wrote before his run, to a series of speeches he has given on the topic, “he has drawn a contrast.” As evidence, Talent cites a litany of Romney statements, from his criticism of China’s currency manipulation to his support for naval shipbuilding and missile defense.
But on immigration, I ask, hasn’t Romney said quite little? When the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the campaign issued a brief statement and Romney stuck to vague platitudes in a subsequent speech on the topic. Once again, Talent disagrees. “He has always said that he wants to bring this debate back to basics — border control, E-Verify, and having a robust legal immigration process,” he says.
Same goes for entitlements. Whereas some conservatives want Romney to better articulate aspects of the Ryan budget, Talent says Romney’s public support of Ryan, and his many remarks on entitlements, signal his “seriousness” about balancing the federal budget. “On Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, he knows that we need to make significant changes to keep them sustainable,” he says.
Romney has also mentioned tax reform on the stump, but he has not been specific about the loopholes he would like to close. “If he’s president, he would lay out the parameters, just as Reagan did in 1986 on this issue,” Talent says. “He would not allow tax reform to be an avenue for a tax increase, I can tell you that. But he’s open to looking at various parts of the tax code that may need to be reformed.”
Romney’s hesitancy to offer line-by-line proposals in each of these policy areas is not unexpected. Back in the spring, when he was in the midst of the GOP presidential primary, Romney told The Weekly Standard that he would likely avoid getting into the weeds this cycle, mostly because he was burned when he did just that during his 1994 Senate bid, and lost.
“One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney said. “So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”
A handful of GOP observers observe that Romney’s policy reticence is smart politics. “I think right now Romney is smart to wait before he starts laying out proposal after proposal, but he ultimately will,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor, on CBS’s Face the Nation recently. But that’s hardly the consensus. Other conservatives, including many here at NRO, have openly complained that beyond his 20 percent tax-cut plan, Romney has said very little.
Over the past year, Talent heard all of these arguments, but none of them has fazed him. Romney is running a “horizontal” policy shop, he says, where the candidate is intimately involved in discussing his positions with many advisers, both inside and outside the campaign. Romney’s management style, Talent says, reflects his policy strategy. Should he win the White House, Talent expects Romney to look to push conservative policies through Congress by working closely with congressional leaders — not by dictating proposals from the Rose Garden.
And that’s why Talent is here, in Washington, as Romney campaigns across the country. “Right now, it’s about building relationships,” he tells me as we stroll by a House office building. “We are working to make the folks here comfortable with him, and listening to what people think, and absorbing that information into his organization.”
Indeed, as conservatives seek specifics, Talent and other senior Romney policy advisers are not scrambling to generate white papers. To them, this contest began as a race about the economy and it remains that. More details may emerge at the Tampa convention, but as Talent says, the Romney platform, for better or worse, is pretty much set.