Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr
On the domestic front, for example, Romney has proposed well-specified tax cuts – an “across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates.” This 20 percent reduction, however, would reduce federal revenue by $480 billion in 2015 alone, and $5 trillion over the next decade. Romney has promised to pay for these cuts without adding to the deficit or raising taxes on the middle class, but it is uncertain whether or not this is realistically possible, leading commentators to describe Romney’s tax promises as being “so vague that the statements could mean absolutely nothing.”
And with regard to foreign policy, Romney has been nothing if not obtuse on whether or not he agrees with the 2014 timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. In his speech announcing his candidacy on June 2, 2011, Romney said: “In Afghanistan, the surge was right, announcing a withdrawal date was wrong. The Taliban may not have watches, but they do have calendars.” Five months later, however, Romney reversed course: “The timetable by the end of 2014 is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan.” Then, on February 2, 2012, Romney again changed positions: “Why in the world do you go to people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense.” And then, in September, Romney reversed course yet again: “Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghanistan security forces by the end of 2014.”
Romney’s so-called “flip-flopping” on the Afghanistan withdrawal should be disconcerting, particularly because of the enormous costs already inflicted by the conflict. But even if you take Romney’s statement in September as his official stance on the issue – a position that, it should be noted, is consistent with his statements during the last presidential debate – we are still left with ambiguity. This ambiguity is reflected in a subtle, but profoundly important, difference in the candidates’ message. President Obama’s position is clear and definitive: Afghan security forces “will be fully responsible” by the end of 2014. Romney’s position, on the other hand, is non-committal: to Romney, the 2014 withdrawal date is merely a “goal,” leaving open the possibility of American troops staying in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Romney wants to “evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders” first, and then, according to the Romney campaign website, “review the transition to the Afghan military.”
The vagueness of Romney’s agenda is reflected in a myriad of other issues, not simply with regard to tax policy and the Afghanistan withdrawal. And concern over Romney’s lack of policy specifics has not been relegated to left-leaning commentators. Conservative columnist John Podhoretz of the New York Post, for example, noted that “Romney & Co. are wrong if they think negative feelings toward Obama are sufficient to motivate their voters. These people would like very much to believe in their candidate” (emphasis in original). Podhorezt lamented the Romney campaign’s failure to offer substantive policy positions, noting that “[i]t’s too intent on winning over the small batch of uncommitted and independent voters by saying absolutely nothing that might possibly offend them.” Similarly, Bill Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard chastised Romney’s lack of policy specifics following his convention speech in August, arguing that “[w]hen a challenger merely appeals to disappointment with the incumbent and tries to reassure voters he’s not too bad an alternative, that isn’t generally a formula for victory. Mike Dukakis lost.”
Despite the criticism, however, the Romney campaign has made a calculated political decision to remain ambiguous. And from the perspective of political strategy, it may have a good reason for doing so. Voters, as political scientists Michael Tomz and Robert van Houweling have found, actually like vague politicians.
After surveying 1,001 people for their views on government services, Tomz and van Houweling determined that voters, rather than being repelled by a candidates’ ambiguity, might actually be attracted by it. In a nonpartisan setting, “voters who have neutral or positive attitudes toward risk, or who feel uncertain about their own policy preferences, tend to embrace ambiguity.” The effect is enhanced in a partisan setting, where “voters respond even more positively to ambiguity; they optimistically perceive the locations of ambiguous candidates from their own party without pessimistically perceiving the locations of vague candidates from the opposition.” Out of their results, Tomz and Houweling concluded that “ambiguity can be a winning strategy, especially in partisan elections.”
While remaining vague on the issues may be a winning strategy in terms of the election, it virtually ensures bad policy after the election is over. The meaningful impact of vague policy commitments will not truly be felt until after the election, where, if elected, Mitt Romney’s role will be to implement the Republican Party agenda, or else he will never survive politically. And through the doors left open by Romney’s vagueness, other Republicans will fill the void. On Friday’s “New Rules” segment on his HBO show “Real Time,” Bill Maher reminded voters of this salient fact:
When you elect Mitt, you’re not just electing him, you’re electing every right-wing nut he’s pandered to in the last ten years. If the Mitt-mobile does roll into Washington, it will be towing behind it the whole anti-intellectual anti-science freak show. The abstinence obsessives, the flat earthers, home schoolers, the holy warriors, the anti-women social neanderthals, the closeted homosexuals, and every endtimer who sees the Virgin Mary in the grass over the septic tank.
Consider your vote carefully. Whoever you choose to vote for on November 6, your choice in this election matters.[Updated 10/29/12 – I originally butchered Bill Kristol’s name. My apologies.]