To date, Mitt Romney's general election campaign has been based on a bet and a bluff.
The bet: Voters are so frustrated by the laggardly economy that they'll opt for any reasonable alternative to the incumbent if that person can lay credible claim to some economic know-how. There, Romney's business background gives him a resume to wave.
Yet during the primary season, he needed something more: A fiscal plan that would appeal to the GOP's now-dominant supply-siders, without alienating the moderates and independents who will be critical come fall. That's a tough trick. The supply-siders look askance upon suitors who come courting without a big bouquet of tax cuts. And that bouquet must include breaks for upper earners, or, as they like to be called, "the job creators."
Meanwhile, if a candidate has plighted his troth to Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform by taking their no-new-tax pledge, as Romney did, he can't use new revenues that come from base-broadening (closing loopholes and deductions) for anything but offsetting new tax cuts. That means all deficit reduction must be accomplished by slashing spending. But as with base-broadening, that must be done without proposing changes that would upset the middle class.
Those conflicting priorities are next to impossible to reconcile. Not without alienating crucial constituencies, anyway.
Which has led to Romney's bluff. He's offered an array of politically sexy promises, but skipped over the (exceedingly problematic) details and instead simply asserted that it all can be done.
Thus he's running on a $5 trillion income tax cut, to be offset by closing loopholes and deductions he refuses to specify, and on a promise to balance the budget after eight years by making deep cuts in programs he (mostly) refuses to identify.
His overall electoral gamble, then, is that he can win not by offering persuasive proposals to turn the country around but rather by corralling voters who conclude Obama has failed at that task.
For a while, it appeared as though that approach might work. But as the campaign takes its fall turn, Romney's strategy looks increasingly dubious.
Things began to go bad at the Democratic convention, when former President Bill Clinton, whose two terms are remembered for economic prosperity and fiscal sobriety, helped clear the fog cloaking the contradictions in Romney's plans.
Romney was promising voters something that just didn't add up, Clinton declared. What they would get instead, he explained, was 1) a higher middle-class tax burden (because of the extensive base-broadening Romney's tax cut would require); or 2) decimated domestic programs (because of the deeper spending cuts that would be required if base-broadening efforts failed); or, more likely, 3) even more debt and deficit, if and when options 1 and 2 proved illusory.
It was almost as though Romney and ticketmate Paul Ryan set out to prove Clinton's point on the Sunday political shows.
Queried on NBC's "Meet the Press," Romney declined to name even one of the loopholes he would close to pay for his new round of tax cuts. Declaring "the specifics are these," Mitt took refuge in assertions more learned lexicographers would deem "non-specifics," or even, "vague and evasive generalities."
Ryan did Romney one better or worse. Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos why the two wouldn't identify their targeted loopholes before the election, Ryan replied: "Because we want to have this debate in the public. We want to have this debate with Congress. ... We should do it out in the public view where the public can participate."
Hmmm. What, exactly, are elections for, if not to engage the public about proposals candidates hope to enact if they win?
Now, Obama can certainly be faulted for vagueness of his own. And yet, when it comes to building castles in the air castles lacking any remotely plausible fiscal foundation Romney is in a fantasy land all his own.
After two weeks of intense political focus, Obama has bounced to a small post-convention lead overall (the race is still a dead heat among likely voters). That's just a "sugar high," the Romney camp insists.
Perhaps; I expect we'll see this race deadlocked again before voters render their final decision.
And yet, three presidential debates will add more clarity to the campaign. And clarity is bad news for a candidate betting on empty-calorie offerings as he tries to bluff his way to victory.