Ezra Klein on Mitt Romney’s Appetite for Spending Cuts

by Reihan Salam

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, known for his close attention to the evolving domestic policy landscape, has a new post arguing that “Romney’s budget plan is a fantasy.” He makes a number of convincing arguments, e.g.:

Consider what the Romney campaign, then, is saying: If Romney is elected, then by his third year in office, every single federal program that is not Medicare, Social Security, or defense, will be cut, on average, by 40 percent. That means Medicaid, infrastructure, education, food safety, road safety, the postal service, basic research, foreign aid, housing subsidies, food stamps, the Census, Pell grants, the Patent and Trademark Office, the FDA — all of it has to be cut by, on average, 40 percent. If Romney tried to protect any particular priority, it would mean all the others have to be cut by more than 40 percent.

That’s not even remotely plausible. The consequences would be catastrophic. The outcry would be deafening. And Romney has shown no stomach for selling such severe cuts.

Cuts of this magnitude really would be immensely politically challenging, and they would cause serious dislocation for vocal and powerful political constituencies. This is one reason why I believe that the Romney-Ryan approach will involve laying the groundwork for long-term fiscal consolidation while allowing for moderately-high short-term deficits, as in Josh Barro’s notional “Secret Economic Plan.” Josh envisions prominent Republican governors like Chris Christie making the case against deep short-term Medicaid cuts, which is very plausible. 

One can draw a number of conclusions from the implausibility of Mitt Romney’s promises regarding the short-term deficit. Conservatives might gird themselves for disappointment, though I think laying the groundwork for long-term fiscal consolidation is the truly important issue. Liberals will likely see it as a sign of rank dishonesty. Swing voters, meanwhile, might conclude that claims that Romney will gut the safety net with lightning speed are simply not credible, as Romney is painting in broad brushstrokes during the campaign but all evidence suggests that he would govern carefully and prudently, if only out of self-interest.

The idea that Mitt Romney doesn’t really have the stomach to cut “every single federal program that is not Medicare, Social Security, or defense” by an average of 40 percent might sound like a notion that undermines the Romney campaign — but I wonder if it is more likely to make the Obama reelection campaign’s insistence that cuts of this magnitude are an inevitability under a Romney administration seem ridiculous. 

Some political observers have argued that voters have “capitalized” the dismal state of the labor market, and that this will redound to President Obama’s advantage: high unemployment is the new normal, so why make a big stink about it. It is possible that there is a parallel relating to political cynicism: perhaps voters understand that campaign proposals don’t always add up, and that Romney-Ryan couldn’t unravel the safety net in the space of three years even if they wanted to do so. At most, despite the fondest wishes of those on the right and the darkest nightmares of those on the left, they could steer the ship of state in a different, somewhat more fiscally conservative direction. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.