Talking heads: Candidates have big speeches, little vision

By , Guest blogger

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thursday, June 14, 2012. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama have now aid out their visions for economic policy. Sadly, while both included plenty of criticism of the other guy, neither told us very much about how they’d actually govern.
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Yesterday, Mitt Romney laid out what his campaign said was his vision for health reform. Today, he followed that up with a talk on economic policy. And President Obama delivered a speech that his campaign promoted as a framework for economic policy. Sadly, while men both included plenty of criticism of the other guy, neither told us very much about how they’d actually govern.

First Romney: The former Massachusetts governor has this problem. He must find a way to convince voters that he has an entirely different idea for health reform than Obama who, of course, lifted his own version from none other than Romney.

So in an effort to put something new on the table, Romney proposed…well, he didn’t really propose anything at all. He recited a carefully-parsed version of the usual GOP talking points: Block grant Medicaid (a polite way of saying he’d cut the federal share of that program), make it harder for patients to collect damages for malpractice, and expand tax-advantaged Health Savings Accounts. He’d also create health exchanges that would somehow be different than the exchanges in the Affordable Care Act. Finally, Romney promised to “end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance.”

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That last idea is intriguing, but what does it mean?

In 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain proposed a bold plan to replace the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance with a refundable tax credit for individuals. The idea, which has broad support among economists and the backing of a few brave politicians, was sharply criticized by candidate Obama as a big tax hike.

So Romney, as is his wont, only talks about the easy part—boosting those tax subsidies to help individuals buy insurance. He says not a word about what he’d do about the current exclusion. Would he end tax discrimination by subsiding both individual buyers and those who get their insurance from their employer? Doing both would add tens of billions to the deficit. So how would he balance the budget too?

Now to Obama, who has had a rough couple of weeks: He doesn’t seem to know what to do about Romney, who is running the same kind of change campaign that Obama ran against the Washington establishment in 2008—a gauzy criticism of the status quo unencumbered by a real agenda. And the president–a master of that soaring change rhetoric– seems much less comfortable playing defense.  

So, to reframe the debate, Obama today delivered what was billed as a major economic speech. But, like Romney’s health talk, it was largely devoid of serious new ideas. Instead, the president seems to be running on a recycled version of last year’s stimulus proposal and echoes of his past budgets. You know the drill–subsidies for alternative energy, education, and basic research, modest new infrastructure spending, and tax cuts on firms that hire in the U.S. These ideas are not only old, they are small….

Obama says he is serious about fixing the deficit, but says only he’d raise taxes on companies that hire overseas and those individuals making $200,000 (couples making $250,000). No word on where his spending cuts would come from.  

It is surely true that Obama and Romney have very different views about the role of government and the nation’s future. But neither man is telling the full story of how he’d fulfill his respective vision. We know where they want to go, but not how they’d get there.    

Long ago, President George H.W. Bush was roundly criticized for lacking what he allegedly called “the vision thing.” Today, in the race between management consultant Romney and the ever-cautious Obama, we may again be watching a campaign with a large sinkhole where that policy vision is supposed to be.

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