Romney’s Meet the Press Remarks on Health Reform and Taxes

by Reihan Salam

It has been immensely amusing to watch news analysts vacillate between characterizing Romney-Ryan as right-wing extremists and as opportunists willing to do anything or say anything to win an election. As should be obvious, these perspectives are very much in tension with each other.

One can of course imagine a scenario in which an opportunist will say anything to get elected and will then act as an extremist. This is a popular critique of the Obama administration. The more potent critique of the Obama administration, in my view, is that it has pursued a broadly social democratic and environmentalist agenda — tax expenditures focused on the low-income and middle-income households rather than rate cuts designed to improve work incentives, coverage expansion, health care cost control via administrative price-setting, an industrial policy devoted to curbing coal-fired power generation and to promoting renewables, etc. — while doing what it can to contain the political backlash that might result from going too far beyond centrist public opinion, hence the abandonment of more ambitious ideas, e.g., substantial tax increases relative to current policy, carbon pricing, more aggressive and explicit administrative price-setting, and so forth. Ryan Lizza’s reporting on President Obama’s possible plans for a second term suggest that he might pursue some of the ideas in this second bucket, which makes perfect sense. 

By analogy, it seems likely that a Romney-Ryan agenda would be similarly constrained by public opinion, just as the Reagan administration was constrained in its efforts to, among other things, federalize Medicaid while assigning state governments exclusive responsibility for K-12 education and welfare expenditures (the “swap”), reform Social Security Disability Insurance by tightening eligibility standards, among other initiatives that were abandoned or scaled back. Some of the more outlandish criticisms of Romney-Ryan rest on the premise that a Romney White House would be indifferent to public opinion. But even if a Romney administration were as indifferent to public opinion on some discrete issues as the Obama administration was on the subject of its coverage expansion effort, it is hard to imagine the nightmare scenarios invoked by former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats actually materializing. 

Recently, Mitt Romney restated a number of positions those of us who’ve been paying attention have known about for some time in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, as the Associated Press reports. He noted that his health reform plan would seek to “make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage,” and that he agreed that young adults should be allowed to remain covered under their parents’ health insurance policies. He also said that “we’re not going to have high-income people pay less of the tax burden than they pay today,” i.e., his tax reform will aim to maintain the current progressivity of the federal personal income tax.

Romney’s unremarkable remarks are being treated as significant concessions or retreats from his stated views. They are not. This isn’t to say they are wise, e.g., I’m not sure imposing a mandate that private insurance coverage must cover adult children is a good idea, particularly if it makes private insurance coverage substantially more expensive.

Tyler Cowen offers a somewhat different take. He believes that a Romney administration would preserve something like the individual mandate under a different name. My own view is that a solution that featured default enrollment with an opt-out provision,  as in Scott Winship’s “citizen benefits” model, would be perfectly acceptable.

The Agenda

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