Thomas Fitzgerald: Details, details

Neither presidential candidate offers many specifics. Which might be smart.

In 1968, Richard Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, and he was not going to lay out specifics. It worked. Many voters took Nixon on faith, figuring he had to be better than the Democrats who got us mired there.

Now, four months before the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney is also playing rope-a-dope on the most important issue of the day: the economy. He provides few details of his policy proposals, figuring it is enough to stress his business biography and point out President Obama's shortcomings.

Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. His main message is simple: President Obama has failed.

The former Massachusetts governor votes to cut taxes by 20 percent, but does not say how he'd pay for this without swelling the federal deficit. He wants to undertake a "fundamental restructuring" of government services but won't say what he'd cut. Strategic vagueness doesn't end there - Romney, for instance, opposes Obama's order allowing as many as 800,000 young undocumented immigrants to stay, but won't say if he would countermand it.

"Basically the Romney campaign is betting on one big thing: The economy remaining so-so to poor," said political scientist Dante Scala at the University of New Hampshire. "Romney just has to show he's a plausible alternative. All things considered, that is not an outlandish wager to make."

There is no incentive to give your opponent ammo. Romney, famously risk-averse, admits this is his goal.

In his failed 1994 Senate bid against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, he called for eliminating the Department of Education. This year he told the Weekly Standard he would never forget how that proposal was used to tag him as uncaring about schools and students.

So Romney declined to offer details of budget cuts, beyond saying he would consolidate some agencies and let some functions revert to the states.

Likewise, Obama has been vague in articulating a vision for a second term. He would like to end the upper-income tax breaks passed under George W. Bush, push for clean-energy standards, and reform immigration, as he promised in 2008 and did not do. Instead, the president has stressed "fighting" for the middle class, and painted Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy.

In terms of policy, Obama has focused on defending his accomplishments, including tighter rules on Wall Street and implementation of the health-care overhaul.

Without much meat, the contest so far has been dominated by trivial flaps driven by the nanosecond-long news cycle. Yet the election at bottom is about a big, fundamental issue: the proper size and role of the federal government. Romney wants lower taxes and a more limited government, with more power to states. Obama believes the government should provide a safety net and reduce income disparities.

Even in the absence of details, Democrats, as well as some nonpartisan analysts, have argued that Romney's fiscal goals are either impossible or would require unpalatable cuts in programs and even some beloved middle-class tax breaks. He has said he could slash tax rates, eliminate some taxes, and offset the lost revenue by cutting deductions and credits - but only for the top wage earners.

"You're going to have to get rid of most, if not all of the spending in the tax code, which would include things like the mortgage interest deduction," Erskine Bowles, cochair of the bipartisan debt commission, said on Bloomberg TV recently. "You're going to have to affect people down through the brackets."

Romney's campaign has recently drawn concern from conservative heavyweights who worry that his safe approach could blow the race. He needs to be bolder, offer a vision, they say.

So far, his campaign is staying the course. Steve Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire, said last week that Romney should not be forced to talk about the kind of changes in entitlement programs that experts say are needed.

"He is perhaps being smarter or sharper than we were in 2008 by not giving any details of that," Duprey told reporters, "because I guarantee you that in September, we will see ads from allies [of Obama] that say Mitt Romney is going to take away your Medicare and your Social Security."

On Friday, another disappointing jobs report was issued. Romney emerged from his vacation to blast Obama, then went back to his vacation.

All this is how presidential races unfold, said political scientist Lara Brown of Villanova University. The onus is usually on the party that holds the White House.

"This is the classic campaign - the challenger doesn't offer a lot of specifics because it's not about the choice; it's a referendum on the incumbent," Brown said. "A lot of successful presidential campaigns have light platforms." It worked for Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower.

And a certain senator from Illinois.

Said Brown, "No one seemed to care in 2008 that Obama's entire campaign was 'hope and change.' "


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