The Devil Is in the Details

Every candidate confronts the question of how detailed they should be in their policy plans, and the basic calculation goes as follows: I want to seem substantive and serious, so it's good to have detailed plans, but I don't want the plans to be so detailed that they give my opponent something to use against me and allow voters to find things they don't like. So usually they find some middling level of specificity, and tolerate whatever criticism they get from one end for not being detailed enough, and from the other end for specific ideas people don't like. But rarely does the question of how specific you're being become a story in and of itself.

Mitt Romney has arrived at that moment, when his unwillingness to reveal exactly what he wants to do in a variety of policy areas is becoming a story in its own right. Here's Steve Kornacki writing about it in Salon. Here's The Wall Street Journal editorial page criticizing him for not being specific. Here's a TPM report on other conservatives scolding Romney for his vagueness. Here's an L.A. Times editorial asking for specifics on Romney's tax plan (which we'll get to in a moment). Here's an NPR story about the specificity question. And President Obama is picking up the issue and using it as an attack, which helps propel the story forward.

It's one thing to be vague because you think getting bogged down in a discussion of details will distract from your broader message, but it's another thing to be vague because a discussion of details will reveal that you're promising things you can't possibly deliver. And Romney's real problem, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, isn't that he's being completely vague but that he's been specific in some parts of what he's proposed but vague in others. He says he wants to cut all income tax rates 20 percent (specific!) and that when he does it, not only will wealthy people not pay any less (specific!) but that the whole thing will be revenue-neutral (specific!). If he had just said, "I want to cut income tax rates, and we'll look for deductions to eliminate and try to do it in a way that won't increase the deficit," I doubt this would be an issue. But because he offered some specifics but refuses to say how he'll make his proposals add up—by explaining which deductions and loopholes he wants to eliminate to pay for the rate cuts, or even suggesting a single deduction or loophole he'd eliminate—he has backed himself into a corner.

And once he starts getting asked questions about it, he sounds incredibly squirrely. When David Gregory pressed Romney for the specifics of his tax plan, Romney said, "Well, the—the specifics are these which is those principles I described are the heart of my policy." That's right, the principles are the specifics. Which is like you saying, "Here's a chicken-salad sandwich," and when I say, "No, this is just two pieces of bread," you reply, "Well, the bread is the chicken salad."

It's important to remember that Mitt's lack of specificity isn't anything new, and it isn't just about taxes. Months ago, I was complaining that though he had built his entire campaign on the idea that his private-sector experience gave him a unique understanding of the economy that would enable him to create millions of jobs ("I understand how the economy works!" he says a dozen times every day), not only had he not offered a single policy proposal that was any different from what every Republican has been proposing for decades, he wasn't even capable of saying what exactly he learned in the private sector. (When pressed, he did manage to explain that businesses have to pay for energy, so if energy were cheaper, they'd make more money. Truly revelatory.)

This is one of the paradoxes of Mitt Romney. He's famously detail-oriented, thinking in PowerPoint presentations and capable of saying, "Here are 12 things we can do" and rattling off every one. His running mate is supposedly the wonkiest wonk in the GOP. Yet he's put himself in a position where not only does he not want to get into the details of what he would do as president, he can't. What is he supposed to do now that he finds himself in this position? On the loophole question he could come up with a piddling loophole or two that he'd eliminate, then face questions about how inadequate it is. Or he could say, "I'll get rid of the mortgage-interest deduction" and make everyone freak out. So my guess is he'll hunker down and hope that in a couple of days this all goes away, just like the question of his tax returns did.

That was really the same problem in a different form: He wanted to look open and transparent, but he didn't actually want people to see the tax forms. So he stood firm, and eventually the controversy ran its course and now nobody asks him about it anymore. Going through that process, however, reinforced the image of him as a plutocrat hiding something from the voters. This specificity question will eventually go away too, but by the time that happens he may have sustained real damage.

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