Monday, November 05, 2012

The Case for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney does not naturally inspire adulation. In school, he should have been voted least likely to engender a cult of personality. It is almost surprising to hear crowds at his rallies chant his name.

A President Romney would be utterly unburdened by messianic expectations. If he’s elected, the American public will have hired him to do a job, not to save the planet or redeem our politics. Thankfully. We’ve had enough self-styled heroic government to last us a good long time.

President Romney’s task would be simple, if not easy: to reform government for the 21st century and put it on a basis more conducive to private-sector growth and long-term national solvency.

He and running mate Paul Ryan are the candidates of change at a time when our future depends on it. The welfare state is in crisis around the Western world, especially in Europe but also here at home—acutely in such states as California and Illinois. It is creaking under dated assumptions, aging populations and the unavoidable truth of the age-old axiom that you can’t spend money that you don’t have.

What have been drags on Romney’s appeal as a candidate might suit him in doing this job. He really does care about the data. He is bloodlessly efficient and highly rational. An important player in the transformation of the private sector at Bain Capital, he now might get a leading role in the modernization of American government.

For all his invocations of hope and change, President Obama has governed as the last President of the 20th century. He hasn’t reformed government, he has merely made it larger. His re-election campaign reeks of intellectual and policy exhaustion. It released a purported second-term agenda with more glossy pictures of him than text, just 14 days before the election. His campaign continually resorts to the small-minded and demagogic in defense of a manifestly inadequate status quo.

Any proposed restraint on the unprecedented peacetime levels of spending and debt is portrayed as unhinged radicalism and the end of the social safety net. Yet under the much maligned Ryan budget—broadly endorsed by Romney—taxes as a percentage of GDP would be slightly higher than their average over the past several decades. Ten years hence, federal spending would still be at a higher level of GDP than in the Clinton years, when tumbleweed didn’t roll in the streets.

The achievement of the Ryan budget is to point a way toward long-term balance without tax increases. The dirty secret is that Obama’s central fiscal initiative, a tax increase on the rich, would raise only $80 billion annually at a time of yearly $1 trillion deficits. Eventually, funding current levels of government will mean broad-based tax increases on the middle class. The President offers no other way out. His $4 trillion “balanced” plan to cut the deficit is little more than a dressed-up talking point. Half the savings were already achieved in the debt-limit talks or come via the inevitable drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President’s budgets have failed to get any votes in the Senate for two years running.

The health care entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid, are the biggest drivers of the debt. Even Obama says Medicare is unsustainable on its current trajectory. Romney wants to block-grant Medicaid to the states so they can experiment to improve it. And at considerable political risk, he endorsed a far-reaching reform of Medicare (although it wouldn’t kick in for 10 years). This is the “premium support” proposal that Democrats routinely say, falsely, would cost seniors $6,400 more a year.

The proposal would guarantee existing Medicare benefits, then invite insurance companies (and a version of the current Medicare program) to bid on providing those benefits. The government would set its level of payment at the second lowest bid, and seniors would choose their preferred option. There is no reason for seniors to pay more than they do now. The popular Medicare drug benefit is a similar premium-support plan and—shockingly for a government health program—has been coming in under cost projections.

Of course, Romney also famously wants to repeal Obamacare. The President’s signature health care program is a sprawling $2 trillion mess sold under false pretenses. The government’s own scorekeepers say it won’t control costs. Medicare’s actuary says its cuts to the program—crucial to paying for the reform law—are so draconian that they are unlikely to happen. The Lewin Group, a respected health care consultancy, says employers could dump millions of people out of their health plans. Much of the expansion in insurance coverage comes through Medicaid, which traps its recipients in a second-class health care system.
Romney has talked (if vaguely) about a free-market alternative that would make it easier for people to own their own insurance. A tax credit for individuals to buy their own insurance could cover tens of millions more people. Properly designed high-risk pools could limit the problem of sick people unable to get coverage. Such a plan could achieve the same goals as Obamacare at a fraction of the expense while encouraging more innovation and cost control in the health care system.
Romney’s tax plan, similarly, aims for greater efficiency. All things being equal, most economists prefer a tax system with lower rates and fewer loopholes and deductions. This is what Romney proposes, in broad strokes, for both income and corporate taxes. The President makes it sound like an impossible dream, but this is the same construct—lower rates, fewer loopholes—behind his own proposal for corporate taxes.

Romney promises a regime of regulatory restraint. His Environmental Protection Agency, in particular, can be trusted not to interfere with the revolutionary oil and gas boom driven by fracking or to impose a cap-and-trade system by administrative fiat. The same cannot be said of the President’s EPA, filled with people who share the goal he used to talk about (though no longer) of making electricity more expensive in order to combat climate change.

The President’s case for re-election has been weak, in keeping with the weakness of his record. Let’s stipulate that he inherited a punishing recession. But the argument that Bush’s policies “got us into this mess” (and by extension, that Romney’s would do the same) is better partisanship than history. In 2007, years after the Bush tax cuts, the budget deficit was all of $161 billion. There is no plausible economic theory by which tax cuts caused the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis.

The mantra that Obama saved us from another Great Depression rings hollow since the recession officially ended in June 2009, before any of his policies had a chance to take effect. He shot $800 billion on the stimulus and got nothing for it except some pleased spendthrift allies in Congress. His faith was in a simplistic Keynesianism that said willy-nilly government spending could cure the downturn. Alas, the economy is more complicated than that.

His green-energy program has been an expensive fizzle. By one estimate, the green jobs created by the stimulus cost $5 million a pop. After all the subsidies, renewable energy increased from 7.2% of total energy consumption in 2008 all the way to 9.4% in 2011. The Department of Energy predicts that renewables will still constitute less than 11% of total energy consumption in 2035.

The vaunted auto bailout, the second half of the Joe Biden rallying cry “Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive!” doesn’t bear much scrutiny. The GM bailout cost some $35 billion. For that kind of coin we could have saved Borders, Tower Records and Circuit City Stores. GM certainly could have gone through a less politicized and more thoroughgoing traditional bankruptcy (with some government financing if necessary), without getting liquidated.

Amusingly, at the same time the President touts a witless “new economic patriotism,” he brags about saving Chrysler so it could be promptly handed over to an Italian company, Fiat.

Foreign policy hasn’t figured very much in the campaign, although it has played out against the backdrop of the unraveling of Obama’s Mideast policy, punctuated by the debacle at Benghazi, Libya.

At the beginning of his Administration he acted as if the mere advent of himself as President would secure our position in the region. Not so. His drone strikes have been admirably deadly, and he made the right call on bin Laden, but otherwise we are worse off than we were four years ago. Iran is closer to a bomb.

 Egypt is in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iraq is sliding the wrong way. Pakistan hates us. And the President looks willing to quit in Afghanistan no matter the consequences.

In the final days of the campaign, the President is pounding away at Romney’s trustworthiness, because the former Massachusetts governor isn’t consistent enough for his taste. This is rich. Obama ran to Hillary Clinton’s left in 2008 and then sounded beguilingly moderate in the general election. He embraced the basic legal architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror as President after denouncing it for years. He was against the individual mandate before he was for it and insisted it wasn’t a tax before his legal team told the Supreme Court the opposite. He was for same-sex marriage before he was insincerely against it, before he was for it yet again.

This would have seemed shocking to say just four years ago, but another reason to hope for the retirement of President Obama is that it would improve the tone of our politics. Whatever his failings, Romney is unlikely to demonstrate the same high-handed contempt for the other party that Obama has, or the same shocking classlessness. It’s impossible to imagine Romney ever publicly calling anyone a bulls—-er.

Mitt Romney is a prudent and decent man who seeks to be a center-right President for a center-right country. Hire him.

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