The Last Time Mitt Romney Had a Secret Plan, It Turned Out to be the Individual Mandate


Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan say they have a plan to reform and simplify the tax system by closing loopholes. They just don't want to tell you what it is: As Jacob Sullum noted earlier today, the best that Romney could do when asked to name just one of the tax deductions he'd eliminate was to say that "people at the high end, high-income taxpayers, are going to have fewer deductions and exemptions." Asked a similar question by ABC's George Stephanopolous over the weekend, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, proved equally evasive. To which Stephanopolous responded, "Isn't that a secret plan?" Ryan insisted that it isn't. 

It wouldn't be out of character, however, for Romney to be selling a major policy reform while avoiding discussion of crucial details. That's part of how he made the case for RomneyCare, the health care reform plan he signed into law as governor as Massachusetts. Like ObamaCare, that law includes an individual mandate requiring nearly everyone in the state to maintain health coverage. Romney sold the plan by touring the state giving PowerPoint presentations intended to drum up support for the plan. But he didn't talk about the mandate. As Martha Bebinger reports in the September issue of Health Affairs, "Romney did not mention the individual mandate. At this stage he was selling the idea that insurance would be so affordable that buying it would not be a burden."

Was Romney already planning an individual mandate at the time? It's hard to say. Bebinger notes that although he published a Boston Globe op-ed around the same time saying that his plan "would apply 'carrots and sticks' to encourage everyone to purchase," Romney's aides say the final decision on the mandate was still up in the air. What's clear, at least, is that Romney didn't want anyone to think he had settled on the inclusion of a mandate.

Eventually, though, Romney would come around — and not reticently either. As The Wall Street Journal reported in June, Romney and his team would become adamant that the Bay State's health care overhaul include a mandate, and would push the state's Democratic legislators to clarify their support for the provision.

Romney, meanwhile, was full-throated in his own support. According to Bebinger, Romney later described the provision as "the ultimate conservative idea," saying that "people have responsibility for their own care, and they don't look to government to take care of them when they can afford to take care of themselves." The governor's team knew that the policy was potentially controversial, and worked out a communications strategy to help with the messaging. Rather than refer to the individual mandate, Romney would refer to either "personal" or "individual responsibility."

There are several things to note from this. One is that Romney apparently cannot tell the difference between a responsibility and a requirement. Another is that Romney prefers not to disclose important policy details and decisions until he absolutely has to, but later will embrace potentially controversial ideas.

Does that mean that his details-free tax reform proposal is a "secret plan?" Perhaps not. But the alternative is that he and Ryan either don't know or don't care which loopholes they would close, which would mean that it's not a secret plan, but no plan at all.