Let's take a trip back to 1992. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton, in his campaign manifesto, said: "Middle-class taxpayers will have a choice between a children's tax credit or a significant reduction in their income tax rate."
By February 1993, President Clinton's position on a middle class tax cut had morphed into this:
Before I ask the middle class to pay, I'm going to ask the wealthiest Americans and companies, who made money in the '80s and had their taxes cut, to pay their fair share. And I'm going to cut more government spending. But I cannot tell you that I won't ask you to make any contribution to the changes we have to make.
To justify the reversal, Clinton cited a budget deficit that was $50 billion larger than what he thought it was before the election. Fast forward to today.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney has pledged to cut income tax rates by 20 percent for every American, not just the middle class. He has also embraced Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan, which would convert the program from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme.
Romney emerges from Michigan committed not only to the Ryan plan, but also to a 20 percent cut in tax rates, above and beyond his prior commitment to making the Bush tax cuts permanent. ...That's not the race I'm sure Romney intended to run. But it will be hard to change now.
Yes, hard to change now—and impossible to realize once in office.
Such deficit-exploding tax cuts will never become law. Romney—a sane man—already knows this. There will be no need for Clintonian "evolution." And, especially if the Senate remains under Democratic control, the odds for which increased with Sen. Olympia Snowe's surprise retirement announcement, the Ryan plan stands little chance of even reaching President Romney's desk.
To review: Mitt Romney has set himself up to (ahem) severely disappoint conservatives who already suspect his ideological convictions.
As I see it, Romney could blunt this backlash-in-the-making by picking up the pieces of last year's aborted Grand Bargain. There is a solid left-right consensus on raising badly-needed federal revenue by reigning in the billions we spend through the tax code. Pair reduction in tax expenditures with modest entitlement reforms and you can see at least the lineaments of restored budget sanity.
This is probably the best outcome our political system can manage these days.
The question is, as president, would Mitt Romney be able to sell it to conservatives who don't trust him?