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One explanation is that the difference is intentional. The Eastwood Doctrine on Afghanistan policy allows candidate Romney to appeal both to Afghanistan hawks and Afghanistan doves at the same time, while deferring until after the election the question about what actually to do about the war, a decision that is bound to displease either the hawks or the doves. The approach on tax policy is similar. Ryan’s invocation of the Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts is intended appeal to growth-oriented, supply-side tax cutters in the Republican base, while Romney’s “not like anything that's been tried before” line is intended to appeal to Ross Perot-style deficit-and-debt hawks among independent voters.
Another possible explanation is that the difference is accidental — an unintended glimpse into a genuine, not-meant-for-show split between the two Republicans on the national ticket. For Ryan, a former aide to Jack Kemp, the history of the Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts increasing revenue is core personal ideology. Romney has a more distant personal relationship to that history, and he doesn’t see himself following as directly as Ryan does in the line of Irish-American tax-cutting politicians.
A third possibility is that there’s genuine confusion about the history and the terminology. Is a tax “cut” a cut in tax rates, or in tax revenues? If revenues, are they revenues in nominal dollars, real dollars, or as a percentage of GDP, and over what period of time?
If Romney succeeds in passing a growth-generating tax cut while claiming it’s “not like anything that’s been tried before,” he’ll be right about one thing, at least — that’s never been done before, at least not in recent history. Kennedy’s aides cited the tax cuts of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who served under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Reagan cited Kennedy’s tax cuts. And George W. Bush cited Presidents Kennedy and Reagan.
Kennedy started out seeking both tax reform and tax cuts but eventually settled mainly for the rate cuts, partly on the grounds that the rate cuts themselves, by reducing the value of the tax deductions, amount to a kind of reform. And if Ryan and Romney find themselves in the White House in a few months, they may find themselves realizing that they are both right, in different ways. Ryan is correct that there are useful historical precedents. But Romney’s correct, too, that each president is, in his own way, breaking new historical ground.