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The Romney Plan

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Is this finally a Mitt Romney that conservatives can love? Or at least support?

Photo of Mitt Romney

Governor Romney spoke last week in Washington to a group closely associated with the Tea Party. And, for the first time, he sounded like a Tea Party candidate, proposing serious spending cuts and—this is important—embracing structural entitlement reform with specific policy proposals.

He’s not Ron Paul, whose plan calls for the elimination of five cabinet agencies, or even Jon Huntsman, who has offered a full, unqualified embrace of Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget.

But neither of those men has any chance of being the Republican nominee. Mitt Romney has a strong chance—and with each passing day that eventuality seems more and more likely. What he says on these issues matters. Cheers for Romney.

Romney says he’ll reduce nonsecurity discretionary spending to 20 percent of America’s gross domestic product by 2016, down from more than 24 percent today. This will require real cuts, and Romney says he’s prepared to make them. In the first of what assuredly will be dozens of “day one” promises, Romney pledges on the first day of his presidency to send Congress a proposal that would immediately cut nonsecurity discretionary spending by five percent. He would also push a provision in the budget passed by House Republicans that would return nonsecurity discretionary spending to pre-Obama levels. He wants to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent and cut the pay of those who remain.

All good. But in the current political environment, with even Barack Obama pretending to favor smaller government, such proposals are not exactly risky. And, more to the point, taken alone they won’t change the long-term trajectory of U.S. debt. Fortunately, Romney took the bolder and riskier step of including some specific entitlement reforms in his plan, too.

His plans, like those championed by the House GOP, would not affect current beneficiaries or those approaching retirement. But for younger workers, Romney’s Social Security reform proposes to “slowly raise the retirement age” and “slow[ing] the growth in benefits for those with higher incomes.” And on Medicare, Romney supports a version of the premium support plan at the heart of the Ryan budget. Romney’s plan, unlike Ryan’s, would preserve something like the current Medicare as one of the options for seniors. “Younger Americans today, when they turn 65, should have a choice between traditional Medicare and other private health care plans that provide at least the same level of benefits,” he said in his speech.

It’s not a trivial difference. There are reasons to worry that the competition fostered by a premium support model would be undermined by a government-run option. But the similarities between Ryan and Romney outweigh the differences. And because Romney’s plan is a fixed, defined contribution plan, it controls costs in part by changing spending incentives.

Ryan, for his part, is enthusiastic. He spoke to Romney before the speech. “It’s a great development that tracks very well with our budget and includes the same kind of spending controls,” he tells us.

We agree: This is an important step. But we also agree with Ryan when he says that he hopes Romney will offer more specifics as the campaign moves forward. More specifics carry more risks, of course, and there are reasons to be concerned that Romney won’t be willing to take them.

On a conference call Friday to promote the Romney plan, a reporter asked former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty why Romney decided to leave traditional Medicare as an option in his premium support model. You do that, Pawlenty explained, “so you don’t get into the situation with Congressman Ryan’s plan where there’s criticism that people will get thrown off Medicare.”

Political considerations matter, to be sure. But they can also be awfully shortsighted. Why not own the argument? Why not make it forcefully? As Ryan put it, laughing: “Believe me, they’ll get hit with that anyway.”

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