Mitt Romney has kept his economic policy close to the vest, leaving him in a difficult position as he tries to push back against a study claiming his proposals would increase taxes for 95% of Americans.
The report, by researchers at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, looked at Romney’s call for a 20% income tax cut for everyone, that he says he would finance by ending existing (and as-yet-unnamed) tax deductions. They assumed for their analysis that Romney would try to eliminate tax breaks favoring the rich as much as possible to pay for his plan, before turning to popular middle-class deductions on health care and mortgage payments to make up the remaining gap. But even allowing for that highly generous baseline, the average American family making less than $200,000 would still have to pay $2,000 more of their income in taxes while the richest .1% would see an average net tax cut close to $250,000.
The study puts Romney in a tricky spot. His campaign has not disputed the substance of its findings. Doing so would require him to provide much more information explaining how he intends to pay for his 20% tax cut, information that could invite Democratic attacks if, as expected, his offsets included eliminating popular tax breaks for the middle class or powerful interest groups.
“Certainly this argues for more detail from Team Romney,” conservative economics blogger James Pethokoukis wrote, adding that the the study — while too pessimistic about revenues for his taste — was mostly fair.
Instead of releasing “more detail,” however, Romney is trying to shoot the messenger. His campaign put out a press release denouncing the Tax Policy Center as a “liberal group” that can’t be trusted. But that’s not likely to fly considering Romney’s own aides have referred to the group repeatedly as an independent and impartial referee. One November press release from the Romney camp highlighting a study of then-opponent Rick Perry’s tax proposal called the Tax Policy Center an “objective, third-party analysis.” Other Romney press releases cited Tax Policy Center analyses of tax plans from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as well.
With no effective way to push back against the study, Democrats are hitting Romney as hard as they can, with President Obama at the vanguard. Within hours of the study’s release, Obama made it the centerpiece of his stump speech in Mansfield, Ohio.
“He’s not asking you to contribute more to pay down the deficit, he’s not asking you to pay more to invest in our children’s education or rebuild our roads or put more folks back to work,” Obama said. “He’s asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut.”
Romney’s current dilemma should feel familiar to the candidate. He faces a very similar dynamic with his own personal taxes, where Romney’s refusal to release any returns from earlier than 2010 has left him open to widespread speculation about just what he might want to hide. Top Democrats like Harry Reid, sensing weakness, have gone so far as to spin unsubstantiated accusations about Romney’s taxes, claiming he may not have paid any for years. Why? Because they know that unless Romney is going to prove them wrong by releasing his taxes, they can get away with it.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.