Mitt Romney has never liked talking about health care, at least since Barack Obama took office and adopted a plan nearly identical to the one Romney passed as Massachusetts governor. As far as Republicans are concerned, anything Obama touches becomes irredeemably contaminated, putting Romney in the uncomfortable position of condemning something that closely resembles his own greatest achievement in public office. So these days, when Romney is asked about the subject he squirms uncomfortably, smiles insincerely, and tries to move the conversation to friendlier terrain.
But it's not just health care. On a variety of issues, a man famous for his immersion in the details becomes awfully vague when it comes to the costs—financial and otherwise—of what he proposes.
On NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, Romney said something that made lots of heads turn. "I'm not getting rid of all of healthcare reform," he told David Gregory. "Of course, there are a number of things that I like in healthcare reform that I'm going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage." In other words, if you elect me you'll get the popular part of health care reform, without the part (the individual mandate) that doesn't poll so well.
Concerned about a conservative backlash, the Romney campaign quickly clarified Romney's statement, then clarified their clarification (Steve Benen has the gory details). What Romney actually favors is a far weaker prohibition on denials for pre-existing conditions than what's in the Affordable Care Act; his version is similar to pre-ACA law and would leave tens of millions of Americans potentially unable to get coverage. As Romney knows quite well, since he tackled this problem in Massachusetts, if you want to forbid insurance companies from denying people coverage, you need to get everyone in the risk pool, and that means an individual mandate. But as a presidential candidate, his first impulse seems to be to tell people that with him, you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Something similar happened when Gregory asked about his tax plan. Romney wants to cut tax rates across the board, which would increase the deficit and mean a windfall for the wealthy. But he promises that the cuts won't actually increase the deficit, and the wealthy won't actually pay any less, because he'll eliminate deductions and loopholes the wealthy take advantage of. To know if his proposal adds up, you'd have to know which deductions and loopholes he'd eliminate, of course. But he won't tell us. Gregory asked him repeatedly to name a loophole or a deduction he'd abolish, and Romney kept repeating that he'd eliminate deductions and loopholes, without saying which. It got almost comical when Gregory asked for specifics and Romney said, "the specifics are these, which is those principles I described are the heart of my policy."
And while Romney was talking to Gregory, Paul Ryan was telling ABC News that they won't reveal the specifics of their tax reform because "the best way to do this is to show the framework, show the outlines of these planks, and then work with Congress to do this."
In fairness, Romney and Ryan aren't wrong when they say that Congress would have to work out the particulars of an overhaul of the tax code, and that process would certainly be lengthy and contentious. But once again, they're telling voters they can have the good stuff—tax cuts, hooray!—but not telling us how we'll pay for it. The trouble with those "deductions and loopholes" Romney promises to eliminate is that the big-ticket ones are pretty popular—which explains why he doesn't want to get particular about them. Is he going to eliminate the employer deduction for health-care expenses? Don't bet on it. How about the mortgage interest deduction, the biggest middle- and upper-class entitlement in the budget, costing around $100 billion a year? Will he give that the axe to pay for the income tax rate cut? Not on your life.
There's a limit to how much detail we should demand from candidates. We don't need to know whom they'll appoint to be Deputy Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs, or exactly how much money their Commerce Department will spend promoting American birdseed in foreign markets. But when they're proposing radical policy change—as Romney is on both taxes and health care—they have an obligation to reveal enough for us to actually judge whether their ideas are good or bad. Mitt Romney is hardly the first candidate to promise voters that his presidency will be all gain with no pain. But for a guy who built his campaign on the idea that he's an effective manager who "understands how the economy works," and who picked a running mate touted on the right for his allegedly detailed policy knowledge, he's leaving an awful lot to the imagination.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.