Mitt Romney's Secretly Sensible Tax Policy

There is a reason Mitt Romney has not advertised his tax plan.

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Slate's Matthew Yglesias marvels at how former Gov. Mitt Romney has made it through the Republican primary contest without getting dinged for the comparative sanity of his tax plan:

Romney has quietly managed to skate through this whole campaign while hewing to a much more moderate line on taxes than his rivals.

Now moderation is a relative concept. Romney wants to extend all the current Bush tax cuts, which on its own terms implies major long-term cutbacks to federal retirement programs ... But there's tons of daylight between Romney and Perry/Gingrich on this front.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

What Romney has accomplished here, it seems to me, is to have met the bare-minimum standard of a conservative position on taxation. He has proposed cuts to the corporate-tax rate (from 35 to 25 percent) as well as the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends for those earning $200,000 or less.

But there's nothing as dramatic or as radical as the flat tax overhauls proposed by Gov. Rick Perry and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (and before them, Herman Cain). It's basically what every Republican presidential candidate in the post-Reagan era has run on.

[ Read the U.S. News debate on the flat tax.]

This is very much by design, as Howard Gleckman of Forbes observed in November:

With all the attention garnered by Perry and Cain, Romney's cautious tax agenda has floated under the radar. And that is, I suspect, exactly where he prefers it. ...

Romney ... is betting that he can win the nod without proposing the kind of hot-button reforms Perry and Cain have offered. That would be a decided advantage in a general election race, where many independents may recoil from the aggressive Perry or Cain plans.

Romney seems perfectly willing to pander on the more incendiary issues, like immigration. In his mind, such slumming is the unfortunate cost of doing business in a Republican primary. He doesn't believe his own hedging for a minute; he knows that some form of comprehensive reform will necessarily become the center of gravity on the issue, as the stubborn realities of employer needs and consumer preferences, not to mention the social embeddedness of millions of people, constrain hard line options.

[ Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

It's the same with abortion and gay rights. Sure, a President Romney will do his conservative due diligence: appoint the right judges, declaim the right slogans, issue the right executive orders. But he knows he's not going to change the culture, and almost certainly has little interest in trying (at least not in the way that a President Rick Santorum would).

When it comes to the economy, though, Romney is not going to be played for a fool. The sanity of his tax plan suggests that Romney consciously has avoided going out on limbs he can't plausibly bargain back from.

In a sense, all the brazen flip-flopping is Romney's smokescreen. He figures, "Let them eat my immigration red meat. Let them wring their hands over abortion and gays. They won't noticed my sensible position on taxes. They won't notice my mainstream take on the Federal Reserve and monetary policy."

[ Read the U.S. News debate on whether the Fed has overstepped its mandate.]

Jonathan Chait has admitted that he finds Romney's shrewdly concealed contempt for the conservative base "endearing."

I can't go that far. I still maintain it violates the norms of presidential politicking, which are decidedly lenient. But there's a cold-blooded, unshakable, laser-like focus to Romney's pander-no-more-than-necessary strategy that, despite myself, I can't help but admire.