Mitt Romney's big plans overheard, showing why he's Mr. Cautious

In public, Mitt Romney sticks to generalities. But in private remarks overheard by reporters, he floated details of what a Romney presidency might look like. Now he may be even more cautious.

Steven Senne/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaks to a crowd during a campaign event, in Warwick, R.I., last week.

In private remarks to donors Sunday night, overheard by reporters, Mitt Romney revealed more details about his plans for the presidency than he ever has to the public.

Some examples: Mr. Romney might eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which his father once headed. He would shrink the Department of Education or combine it with another agency. For high-income taxpayers, he would eliminate or limit the mortgage interest deduction for second homes, though within the context of lower marginal tax rates.

Depending on whom you talk to, these proposals are either welcome or alarming. But they also reinforce a core fact about the presumptive Republican nominee – that as a candidate, Romney is a man of caution. He signaled as much in a recent interview with The Weekly Standard, when he said he’d learned a lesson in his 1994 campaign against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts – that when he got specific, he got slammed.

“Will there be some [programs] that get eliminated or combined?” Romney said, speaking of the current campaign, in a piece called “Risk-Averse Romney.”  “The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

On Sunday night, Romney decided to share some of his list. He made his comments at a high-dollar fundraiser in the backyard of an estate in Palm Beach, Fla. According to reporters from NBC and The Wall Street Journal, the candidate’s comments could be heard on a public sidewalk below.

Though technically not a “hot mike” moment, Romney’s overheard comments are being compared to the remark that President Obama made last month in Seoul, South Korea, to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Inadvertently speaking near a live microphone, Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev that on key issues like missile defense, “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Romney has been bashing Obama ever since for running a “hide-and-seek campaign.” Now Romney is up against the same charge.

Of course, when speaking to a crowd of what was described as several dozen people, even loyal GOP donors, one can't expect the most interesting points not to leak out sooner or later. Now it may be that Romney becomes even more gun-shy about revealing detailed plans.

In a conference call with reporters Monday morning, former Sen. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri, a top Romney adviser, tried to minimize the significance of Romney’s off-the-record comments.

“He was just discussing ideas that were coming up on the campaign trail,” Mr. Talent said. “There wasn’t any change of policy.”

Talent also noted that when Romney put out a 59-point economic plan, "people were making fun of it because it was too detailed."

Still, reports on what Romney – and his wife, Ann – said on Sunday provide new clues into how the former Massachusetts governor would approach the presidency, as well as how they see the campaign in real time. Here are more of the comments:

• Romney said he would probably eliminate the state income tax deduction and state property tax deduction for high-income taxpayers. That, combined with curtailing the mortgage interest deduction for high earners’ second homes, would allow him to maintain the same level of tax revenue while lowering tax rates. He argued that would allow small businesses to keep more of their earnings and expand payrolls, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

• Romney predicted that immigration would become a larger issue in the fall, and he said that recent polls showing him trailing badly among Hispanic voters signal “doom” for his campaign. He said the Republicans must offer a “Republican DREAM Act.” The Democratic version provides young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through college attendance or military service.  

• He vowed to stand up to teachers unions. "The unions will put in hundreds of millions of dollars," Romney said. "There's nothing like it on our side," he said, and he encouraged attendees to get their friends to donate, as well.

Ann Romney, scorned last week by a Democratic operative for discussing women’s economic concerns although she “never worked a day in her life,” expressed pleasure at the controversy. "It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother," she said. "That was a really defining moment, and I loved it."

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