Why Mitt Romney Should Get Out From Behind the Backyard Fence

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Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the National Rifle Association's Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum in Saint Louis, April 13, 2012.

Mitt Romney spent Sunday afternoon being spied on by his own press corps, and it was just about the best thing that could have happened to him. At a fundraiser in Palm Beach, Romney stood in a backyard with his wealthy benefactors, delivering remarks about his policy plans should he win the White House. Unlike Obama, who allows the press to report on his formal remarks at fundraisers, the press was barred, but they were not far away. As it turned out, reporters could hear what Romney was saying from the public sidewalk nearby.

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It was a rare bit of broken message discipline for a hyper-disciplined campaign. Romney told the group of wealthy donors that he would either merge the Department of Education, or make it “a heck of a lot smaller.” He said the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which focuses on building affordable housing, “might not be around later.” He said would eliminate the deduction on interest for second mortgages for “high income” people, and he said he would deal with animosity from Latino voters by proposing new immigration solutions, including a DREAM Act that can be supported by Republicans. “We’re going to be able to get Hispanic voters,” Mr. Romney said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re going to overcome the issue of immigration.”

Ironically, Romney was overheard just as his opponents at the Obama Campaign were stepping up their excessive secrecy attack on Romney, who unlike Obama has shown little interest in providing transparency around fundraising and personal finances, and has yet to offer many policy specifics. “Harkening back to my youth, which extends far beyond yours, there was a show called, ‘I’ve Got A Secret,’” David Axelrod told Mike Allen over the weekend. “Increasingly, I think that would be the appropriate title for the Romney campaign.”

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Which is why Romney should be grateful his voice carried over backyard wall. At this point in the campaign, now that Romney has been forced to the right by his own party, policy specifics are his best friend, and his route to a more centrist platform. As it stands, he is running a campaign based on the idea that he has a superior policy and managerial competence, but he has not yet debuted it on the campaign trail. His policy proposals have been, to date, mostly political posturing. He promises to cut everyone’s tax bill, but won’t describe how he will raise revenue to pay for the cuts. He promises to slice away at federal spending, but will only name targets–like “PBS” and “Planned Parenthood”–that poll well among the base and are too tiny to have a significant fiscal impact.

If Romney wants to win a competence contest against Obama, he will have to reveal himself to be a serious policy person, with real proposals that are actually workable. His reputation for making himself and investors a lot of money and righting the budget of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee will not be enough. Staged policy addresses over the coming months will not be enough. Romney has to be able to get into the weeds on this stuff, and he has to be able to do it in a way that actually speaks to people, with a sort of candor and, with apologies to John McCain, straight talk (meaning bad news) that he has not yet been able to muster much.

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Leaks like this, in other words, can only help. They show that there is a serious side to Romney, one who has thought about the policy implications of actually attempting to do what he talks about in cartoon-like-language on the campaign stump. The Obama campaign, of course, disagrees with me on this point. Ben LaBolt, Obama’s campaign spokesman, sent the following statement to reporters Monday, about Romney’s overheard remarks:

Governor Romney previously said he wasn’t going to outline specific cuts during this campaign because they could harm his electoral prospects.  Last night’s comments make clear he does in fact have very specific cuts in mind:  in order to fund his $5 trillion tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, he would make deep cuts in programs essential to the middle class like education and housing.

Throughout this campaign, Mitt Romney has tried to play by a different set of rules.  While presidential candidates of both parties have for decades disclosed many years’ worth of tax returns, Mitt Romney won’t even share with the American people the tax returns he gave to Senator McCain when he was being considered for Vice President.  He still hasn’t explained why he opened a Swiss bank account or established a corporation offshore in Bermuda – or provided the returns that could provide that explanation.  He won’t disclose his major fundraisers, even though President Obama, President Bush, and Senator McCain all did.  And as he exited office as Governor, his staff walked out the door with his records that will now never be shared with voters.

Americans have always expected to be able to review a presidential candidate’s records and plans, the opportunity to lift up the hood and kick the tires.  It’s time for Governor Romney to come clean.

I would argue that LaBolt is actually offering Romney good advice, because coming clean is likely to do far more to help Romney in the long run than it will to harm him. His tax returns will reveal him to be a really rich guy who was able to buy tax tricks the rest of us can’t afford. His plans to cut the federal budget will reveal him to be a budget hawk who envisions a dramatic reduction in federal services and long-term entitlement spending. His immigration policies will likely reveal him to be a Chamber of Commerce moderate who was posturing to the Republican base in the primaries.

All of this will help voters get to know him, and allow him to make his case for competence, which has a good chance of winning against Obama should the economy continue to sputter. His conservative policies will almost certainly turn off some voters, and his exploitation of foreign tax havens could alienate a few more, but not revealing who he really is and what he really wants to do could turn off many more.