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September 26, 2012 11:10 AM Romney’s Tax Flip Towards Responsibility

By Jonathan Bernstein

I recently wrote that Mitt Romney’s tax plan — as he most recently at that point had described it on 60 Minutes — still didn’t pass the giggle test. However, soon after that post the Romney campaign clarified its position, and I’m glad to see that it was clarified in the direction of becoming a responsible proposal.

Recall that Romney said he would cut income tax rates by 20%; protect various preferred treatment of certain types of income; keep overall taxes the same or lower for middle-income filers; and keep overall revenue neutral. The problem? It didn’t add up; there aren’t enough available tax breaks to close to make up the revenues lost from the rate cuts without increasing taxes on the middle class. At first, some liberals attacked it as “Romney has a plan to raise taxes on the middle class.” But when Romney then emphasized the “no middle class tax increase” part of it, what legitimately remained was only that something had to give, because the math simply didn’t work.

Ah, but yesterday, as Suzy Khimm reports:

Romney adviser Kevin Hassett denied that his plan was mathematically impossible in a discussion with Obama economic adviser Jeffrey Liebman. But Hassett suggested that if Romney’s plan proved impossible, or too difficult to get through Congress, Romney would choose to make his tax cut smaller rather than increase the deficit or put the burden on poor Americans.

Okay, then. I’ll toss in the major caveat that an actually responsible plan would also accept conventional estimates of the effects — Romney has at least flirted with making the math “work” by simply asserting a highly implausible growth effect so that the taxes would supposedly pay for themselves. But if Romney uses regular estimates, then this is a perfectly reasonable campaign program. No, he doesn’t fill in the details, but in my view that’s not a problem, or at least not a major one. We have a goal of eliminating enough deductions and credits to get tax rates down by 20%, some guidelines for how to do that, and an escape hatch if they can’t agree to enough reform to get to 20%.

I’d point out two things about the plan that remains. One is that I’m not sure, at this point, that Romney’s tax reform plan differs at all from Barack Obama’s other than that Romney is currently putting more emphasis on his (which does probably mean it’s somewhat more likely to be a priority for him).

The other is that whatever you think of tax reform, it’s still hard to believe that it will either happen quickly (especially in Romney’s “let Congress handle all the details” version) or have fast-acting positive effects; the experts who support tax reform generally think it’s good for the long-term growth of the economy, not a way to give a quick boost. Which doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a bad idea, but Romney’s emphasis on it is another reminder that he and the current GOP don’t actually support doing anything in particular to combat the current economic situation.

But overall, as one who has been very critical of Romney’s tax plan on the grounds that it didn’t add up, I’m very pleased to see this shift towards responsibility.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.