Maybe Rick Santorum is helping Mitt Romney after all: Santorum's wacky statements about college and snobbery, along with his upset stomach over a fifty-two-year-old John F. Kennedy speech, are distracting attention from Romney's extremist economic ideas.
Yes, Romney needs Santorum to keep doing his exotic fan dance on social issues because the stage act diverts everyone (especially journalists) from examining the reactionary and regressive ideas Romney is cooking up on substantive questions. If Romneyism is what now passes for "moderation" in the Republican Party, no wonder the authentically moderate Olympia Snowe decided to end her distinguished career in the Senate. There is no room anymore for proposals remotely worthy of the moderate label.
Romney's plan is simultaneously extreme and very, very boring. It draws on the one and only idea that today's conservatives offer for solving any and every problem that comes along: just throw even more money at rich people.
At his moment of triumph Tuesday night after his necessary victories in Michigan and Arizona, a bit of inspiration from Romney would have been nice. Instead, he detailed a list of tax changes that might lift the spirits of accountants and lawyers for wealthy Americans across our great nation, while sending everyone else off to the fridge for a beer.
Romney promised to enact an "across-the-board, 20 percent rate cut for every American," pledged to "repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax," and said he'd abolish the "death tax." (The "death tax" is conservative-speak for the estate tax paid by only the most affluent Americans.) He'd lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, "make the R&D tax credit permanent to foster innovation," and "end the repatriation tax to return investment back to our shores."
It's not exactly "Ask not what your country can do for you," but these ideas do appeal to Romney's most faithful constituency in primary after primary: Republicans earning more than $200,000 a year. In Michigan, they backed him over Santorum by 2-to-1.
They're Romney's base for good reason. That "across-the-board" tax cut sounds fair and balanced. But a Tax Policy Center study last November of the impact of a 20 percent across-the-board rate cut showed that the wealthiest 0.1 percent would get an average tax reduction of $264,000. The poorest 20 percent would get $78, and those smack in the middle would get $791.
And the candidate who says he'll eliminate the deficit does not let on, as a new Tax Policy Center report noted Wednesday, that his tax giveaway would add more than $3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Romney talks vaguely about closing loopholes to recoup some revenue, but aren't "moderates" supposed to see deficit reduction as urgent?
There is a terrible bias in the mainstream media which judge "moderation" almost entirely in relation to positions on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage. The media love these issues because they often involve sex, which everyone likes to read about, and do not demand elaborate explanations, charts or tables.
Go right on social issues, and the extremist charge can't be far behind. But the media rarely peg an extreme economic conservative as "extreme" because doing so requires tedious math-laden paragraphs. Besides, people in pinstriped suits who are driven by money don't seem "extreme."
So here's a counterintuitive argument: These primaries have damaged the Republican candidates' images in the short run. But in the long run, they may yet help Romney -- if he prevails -- because by comparison with Santorum and Newt Gingrich, he seems "moderate," and his supporters are more "moderate" than the voters backing the other guys. And Romney has been on so many sides of so many issues that pundits can arbitrarily imagine their own Romney.
My friend and colleague Matt Miller wrote recently that "everyone knows Romney is basically a pragmatic centrist." No, "everyone" does not know this. The evidence from his tax plan, in fact, is that he's an extremist for the privileged.
We're witnessing what should be called the Two Cadillacs Fallacy: Romney's rather authentic moments suggesting he doesn't understand the lives of average people (such as his comment on his wife's two Cadillacs) are dismissed as "gaffes," while Santorum's views on social issues are denounced as "extreme." But Romney's gaffes are more than gaffes: They reflect deeply held and radical views about how wealth and power ought to be distributed in the United States. These should worry us a lot more than Santorum's dopey ìsnobî comment or his tasteless denunciation of JFK.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).