On Taxes, Paul Ryan Debates Mitt Romney

The next debate should be between Romney and his running mate, about what exactly is in their tax plan.


Maybe the next debate should be between Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, about what exactly is in their tax plan.

Consider the following contradiction:

"My plan is not like anything that's been tried before. My plan is to bring down rates but also bring down deductions and exemptions and credits at the same time so the revenue stays in." — Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate, October 3, 2012.

REP. RYAN: It is mathematically possible. It's been done before. It's precisely what we're proposing.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (Chuckles.) It has never been done before.

REP. RYAN: It's been done a couple of times, actually.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: It has never been done before.

REP. RYAN: Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth. Ronald Reagan —

—Vice Presidential Debate, October 11, 2012.

Got that? Romney says, "My plan is not like anything that's been tried before." Ryan says, "it's been done before." Vice President Biden agrees with Romney and disagrees with Ryan.

Well, guys, which one is it? It would be nice to get a clear explanation from the Romney-Ryan campaign before the election, so voters who care about the tax and budget issue can decide.

I've closely followed the Washington debate over taxes, growth, and revenues for nearly two decades now, and even I was so baffled by this situation that I had to call bigger brains than mine for reinforcement.

I got the Cato Institute's Daniel Mitchell on the line after the Romney debate, and Mr. Mitchell told me that on taxes, "I'm not quite clear what Romney is saying." Mr. Mitchell said that as a practical matter, given the retiring baby boom and the size of the deficits left by George W. Bush and Obama, "I'm not overly optimistic that tax cuts, at least in any significant sense, are likely."

I played phone tag with Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, who left me a voicemail message to the effect that he thought Mr. Romney was explaining revenue-neutral tax reform in words that were addressed to independent, nonaligned, undecided voters.

Mitchell's comments and Norquist's were helpful enough that I've now come up with at least a few possible explanations for the Ryan-Romney divide on whether their tax approach has been tried before.

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.

NEXT: When Will Obama and Romney Debate Supreme Court Nominations?

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  1. The next debate should be between Romney and his running mate, about what exactly is in their tax plan.

    Or, maybe we could recognize the fact that as VP, Ryan's opinion wont amount to dick and a warm piss unless a tie is being broken in the senate so I'm not sure what the point of contrasting the difference here between the two men given VPOTUS and POTUS, are more like Top and bottom bitch than coequal partners.

    1. random comma, random capitalization, my plan to appear human continues without abate.

  2. I'd prefer Romney's plan with no detail to anything Obama would do.

    1. You are insane.

      1. I'm pretty sure a lot of democrat voters were saying that 4 years ago about the "other guy"

        1. ANYBODY BUT BUSH!

          Well, you got him.

      2. I may be insane, but I know Obama wants to raise taxes which he wants to use for his social experimentation.

  3. I played phone tag with Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, who left me a voicemail message to the effect that he thought Mr. Romney was explaining revenue-neutral tax reform in words that were addressed to independent, nonaligned, undecided voters.

    i.e. Norquist thinks Romney was lying to appeal to voters they think are too dumb to figure that out.

  4. The article leaves out a fourth possibility: that there is no tax plan, and Romney and Ryan are just telling voters whatever they want to hear so he can get elected.

  5. they are both idiots. no question.

  6. Really, who the hell cares? Unless spending is cut, tax cuts are sales pitches to the uninformed masses. Reason should spend their time producing more intellectually stimulating pieces that help inform the electorate of this fact, and leave articles like this to cnn or msnbc. Oh, and I also hate articles that focus on employment numbers as if jobs are an end in and of themselves rather than simply a means. Enough ranting. Go Tigers!!

    1. To be fair, that's not entirely true. Government debt is not *technically* my debt, but the concern is what government will do, with all those plenipotentiary powers and all, to deal with their debt.

      1. "...what government will do..."

        This is the key point. Even though it is not technically your debt or mine, practically, you and I will be paying one way or another. My broader point is that the media focuses so much attention on tax cuts and then talks about how much they will "cost". Tax cuts don't "cost" anything. SPENDING costs. Outside of libertarian circles, you rarely hear about significant spending cuts in a positive (or even necessary) light.

  7. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll wit hteh changes.


  8. 0% please.

  9. Nothing seems surprising to me. It's pretty clear that Romney's plan is mostly tax revenue neutral. He's lowering marginal rates and closing loop holes to pay for it. Probably, rather than fight an epic battle over each tax deduction, he'll just propose some flat cap on deductions. For example, everyone can take all the standard deductions, but their limited to some cap based upon brackets. The effect will be each bracket pays about the same amount of actual taxes, with less deductions and lower marginal rates. So people will stop spending time and money seeking deductions and gaming the tax system (mortgage deductions) and spend the time on other pursuits, such as increasing income. And people who increase income, still end up paying the government more money than they would have otherwise. So tax revenues grow over time as taxpayers incentives have changed from tax avoidance to income growth.

  10. Once again I will explain something without ever having seen it:

    Taxes under Romney will be approximately what they are now.

    1. No way. I understand disagreements with Romney over defense spending, but with regards to tax policy he and Obama are like the US constitution and marxism.

      And actually Ryan is very close to Romney regarding taxes, despite what he said in the debate, were the candidates set tramps to each other all the time.

  11. I want to see the Romney vs. Romney debate. It might be a huge one like the early GOP debates, with all those versions of Romney on one stage.

  12. I didn't pay very close attention to the debates, and so I'm just going by the quotes supplied in this article. But I don't see a big contradiction here.

    It sounds like Romney is saying that he will lower tax rates but eliminate enough credits/deductions so that tax revenues would stay the same (even if GDP doesn't grow). Romney claims this has never been tried before.

    It sounds like Ryan isn't talking about the loophole closing aspect of the tax plan, but simply the popular Republican idea that lowering tax rates can increase tax revenue because it encourages economic growth.

    They may both be lying, but they are lying about different things.

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