In Newly Unveiled Economic Agenda, the Romney Brand Distilled

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Mitt Romney’s second presidential run has largely focused on a single theme: Barack Obama has bungled the economy, and I’m the guy who can fix it. Romney points to his business and management expertise, honed in the boardrooms of Bain Capital and showcased by his stewardship of the Salt Lake City Olympics, to argue that his experience creating businesses and turning around flagging ones renders him the best positioned candidate to stanch the economic bleeding and put America back to work. But until now, he hasn’t seemed in too much of a hurry. The Romney campaign has been coasting, assiduously courting donors and opinion-makers, never panicking in grim news cycles and often preferring to plead its case in the op-ed pages instead of on the stump. The candidate has favored studiously casual attire, rarely engaged his rivals, and often skated over the fine print detailing how, exactly, he would engineer a turnaround of the U.S. economy.

Tuesday afternoon marked a new phase in Romney’s campaign, as the former Massachusetts governor unveiled his economic platform at a truck dealership in North Las Vegas, two days before Obama lays out his own proposals before a joint session of Congress and four days after a dismal jobs report crystallized the economic challenges ahead. Spiffed up in a jacket and tie and flanked by billboards outlining his policy proposals, Romney laid out the broad strokes of an economic agenda he said would create some 11.5 million jobs and grow the economy at an annual rate of 4% over his first four years in the White House.

The idea animating Romney’s economic policy is that the overreach of the Obama Administration, excessive regulations and high taxes have throttled the private sector’s ability to create jobs. “Growth is the answer, not government,” he told the crowd. This is, of course, standard Republican boilerplate. And for all the scorn Romney has heaped on Obama, his own economic ideas are hardly new.

Romney’s policy platform, laid out in a 160-page book, touts 59 specific prescriptions, including five bills and five executive orders he would push on his first day in office, such as directing the Cabinet to offer “ObamaCare” waivers to the states and freezing regulations imposed by his predecessor. Most of his proposals align with Republican orthodoxy. On taxes, Romney would cut the corporate rate from 35% to 25% and let companies repatriate profits, lower marginal rates for individuals, and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends for the middle class. He wants to increase energy production, cut non-defense discretionary spending 5% and cap it at 20% of GDP, boost trade (he calls for a “Reagan Economic Zone” of countries committed to free enterprise), cut red tape and confront China.

“We’re not going to have a trade war, but we can’t have a trade surrender either,” he said. “I’ll clamp down on the cheaters, and China’s the worst example of that.” He argued that with the adoption of any new regulation, one of similar cost should be scrapped. And he took dutiful swipes at unions, the EPA and the National Labor Relations Board, whose move to block Boeing from operating a new South Carolina plant has made it an obligatory target for any Republican who hopes to compete in the Palmetto State primary.

All of this should sound familiar. There’s little daylight between Romney’s economic policies and the ones Republican rival Jon Huntsman touted last week in his own such blueprint. (The former Utah governor, who’s been on a sustained offensive against Romney of late, fired another salvo Tuesday, releasing a spot slamming Romney’s record on job creation in Massachusetts, which ranked 47th in the country by one measure.) Romney’s proposals also dovetails with those championed by House Republicans, whose “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill to slash spending and pass a constitutional balanced-budget amendment Romney supports. And he shades many of the same facts as his Republican counterparts.

“If Mitt Romney has expressed a single original idea on the economy in the entire time he has been running for President – for the second time – you could auction it off on eBay in the rare stamp collection area,” Brad Woodhouse of the Democratic National Committee wrote in an memo which blasts Romney for “adopting the extreme policy prescriptions of the Tea Party.”

Sort of. For months, Romney has tried to polish his conservative credentials and use Tea-infused rhetoric even as he courts more moderate Republicans searching not for purest candidate but the most viable one. At Jim DeMint’s Labor Day forum in South Carolina, Romney tossed red meat to the ravenous conservative base –“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an administration who has gone further afield from the Constitution” than Obama’s, he said — but was the only candidate of the five to appear who declined to back using the 14th Amendment as a potential vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade. (He deftly cited states’ rights as the reason why, as the L.A. Times reports.) A day earlier in New Hampshire, he made his maiden overture to the Tea Party, where his speech was greeted by protesters and boycotted by the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, one of many outfits who will likely never forgive him for his efforts to thin the ranks of the uninsured in Massachusetts.

In Las Vegas, a Romney redoubt (he handily won the Nevada caucus in 2008) that’s been clobbered by the recession, the former Massachusetts governor sought to appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Obama, he said, is “not a bad guy. He, uh, he just doesn’t know how the economy works.” Democrats “love America too, just like we do.”

What separates Romney from his Republican rivals, he says, is that he alone has the private-sector management experience to shepherd the U.S. economy through an increasingly competitive global marketplace. “I think to create jobs, it helps to have had a job, and I have,” he said. As Democrats often point out, Romney’s job involved the elimination of others, and his attempts to connect with the concerns of the ordinary Americans can be pretty awkward.  At one point in Tuesday’s speech, he directed the audience to, where he said voters can find a full-color version of his policy platform designed for the Kindle. “I don’t know if it’s free or not,” he said. “I hope so.” (Charging the middle class to read his plan for saving it would be a novel business tactic, but thankfully, you can read the document free of charge.)

During the first phase of the presidential campaign, Romney was the putative front-runner, and his top priority sometimes seemed to be proving that he was just a regular dude, albeit a very rich one. Now he has some competition of his own. In recent weeks, he’s been dislodged from the top spot in several polls by Texas Governor Rick Perry, setting up what many analysts argue will be an arduous two-man race.

Perry’s camp was quick to pounce on the speech. “As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney failed to create a pro-jobs environment and failed to institute many of the reforms he now claims to support,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner said in a statement Tuesday. Ben LaBolt, Obama’s 2012 press secretary, said Romney’s plan paid lip service to protecting the middle class, but would instead “tip the scales against hard-working Americans.”

Romney calls his a “practical” approach developed through his decades of experience in competitive markets, rather than theory cribbed from the halls of academia. And yet, he had help from a roster of brainy policy advisers, including Jim Talent, a former Republican Senator from Missouri; Greg Mankiw, a Harvard professor and former chief of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers; and Mankiw’s successor at Bush’s CEA, Glenn Hubbard, a Columbia professor. The presidential brain trust and Tuesday’s slick economic presentation are characteristic of Romney’s campaign style: He’s always been good at looking the part.