Here's what Mitt Romney means when he mentions specific tax loopholes he might close and government departments he would possibly shut down or consolidate: nothing at all.
At a private gathering for high dollar campaign donors, Romney broached some policy specifics that so far he's been unwilling to discuss in detail. In the past, he's said that in order to make his tax reform proposal revenue neutral, he would close various tax loopholes and reduce federal spending. Which ones? That was a subject for another time.
With an audience of big-dollar donors at hand, and the press safely out of listening range, however, Romney was willing to say a little more at a Florida campaign event this weekend. We know this because the press, it turns out, wasn't out of listening range. According to The Wall Street Journal, reporters were able to overhear his remarks from a public sidewalk near the back yard where Romney was speaking. And it turns out that Romney talking "specifics" doesn't sound all that different from his usual evasive, infinitely hedged policy patter.
Romney talking "specifics" about cutting tax loopholes and adjusting the federal government's responsibilities in order to pay for his plans means, at most, a few hints at some of the changes he might make. Maybe. Possibly. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which Romney's father ran during the Nixon administration, "might not be around later." Which also means that it might. The Department of Education would be "a heck of a lot smaller." But don't think he's actually going to eliminate it: He also promises that he's "not going to get rid of it entirely."
As always, Romney frames his policies in the language of possibility: what he might do, what he'll consider changing. And he's far clearer about the changes he won't make—getting rid of he education bureaucracy entirely—than the changes he will.
But just in case anyone thought that Romney might have said something informative, or made an actual policy commitment, one of his policies advisers clarified the matter to stress that in fact Romney had not said or done anything of the sort. A campaign staffer told CNN that Romney was "tossing ideas out, not unveiling policy." We wouldn't want a candidate running for president to do that, now, would we?
This incident tells us two things. The first is that Romney's campaign staffers are going out of their way to ensure that their candidate is viewed as blank slate. Because the Republican party lacks a coherent, widely agreed upon set of policy commitments, they are pitching Romney as a sort of generic GOP EveryPresident: pro-business, pro-America, anti-Obama, but for the most part devoid of coherent, fully formed policy commitments.
The second is that Romney is still attempting to present himself differently to different audiences—giving top-level donors the impression that he has revealed policy specifics, but hedging his language as he does, and later denying through his campaign that they were meaningful details at all. Romney, the former private equity deal maker and management consultant, has always altered his persona to fit his audience: When he ran for Senate in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy in 2002, he described his views as "progressive." A decade later in the GOP primary, he describes himself as "severely conservative." In between, he descibed himself as whatever was most convenient for the audience and the moment.
The news here isn't that Romney announced new policy proposals. The news is that he's still trying to get away with tailoring his messaging to his audience, and with telling people what he thinks they want to hear rather than what he actually believes. On that front, Romney revealed nothing. Perhaps because there's nothing to reveal.