While some of my conservative colleagues are criticizing the Romney campaign for one thing or another, I want to make a distinct point that is largely being overlooked: Mitt Romney is the most fiscally conservative Republican standard-bearer since Ronald Reagan.
Looking back through his speeches, interviews, and programmatic proposals, I see an emphasis on economic freedom, free enterprise, low tax rates, deep federal spending cuts, and free trade, and a free-market approach to tough social problems, such as health care, education, and poverty. Meaning no disrespect to George W. Bush, John McCain, Robert Dole, and George H. W. Bush, not one of these former Republican leaders was the consistent and comprehensive free-market advocate that Romney has been.
A few recent examples help illustrate my point.
Following his trip to Israel, Romney released an essay called “Culture Does Matter,” which was printed on National Review Online. In it, he strongly defended his statement that culture plays a key role in creating prosperity.
Romney wrote that “one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.” He added that “economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty . . . the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity.”
The last Republican leader to talk specifically in those terms? Ronald Reagan.
And when Romney walked into the NAACP lion’s den in July, he told the crowd: “Free enterprise is still the greatest force for upward mobility, economic security, and the expansion of the middle class.” He was booed at the beginning of that speech when he opposed Obamacare. But he received a standing ovation at the end, once people heard his overall philosophy.
I recently asked the former governor about Obama’s now-infamous “you didn’t build that” statement. Romney blasted it by saying, “This is an ideology which says, ‘Hey, we’re all the same here, we oughta take from all and give to one another,’ and that achievement, individual initiative, risk-taking, and success are not to be rewarded as they have in the past.” He called it an upside-down philosophy that does not comport with the American experience. The language is clearly Reagan-like.
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Programmatically, Columbia Business School dean and top Romney economic adviser Glenn Hubbard recently laid out the specific Romney economic plan. (Undoubtedly, the Romney campaign crossed every “t” and dotted every “i.”) The plan would lower the spending share of GDP to 20 percent from 24 percent by 2016, which is probably the largest proposed spending cut ever. The cumulative net savings of that cut could be a whopping $1.8 trillion, which not only would finance huge deficit reduction, but also would help pay for Romney’s pro-growth tax reform: a supply-side, across-the-board 20 percent personal-tax-rate reduction, a limit or end to various tax deductions for upper-income payers, and a dramatically reduced corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 25 percent -- perhaps the most powerful growth stimulant of all. Rounding out the economic program is a regulatory rollback, entitlement, trade, education, and energy reform, and a sound monetary policy (replacing Ben Bernanke at the Fed).
The liberal Brookings Institute seized on the tax portion of this plan, arguing that revenue neutrality would force Romney to end deductions and raise taxes on the middle class. Nonsense. That analysis completely misses the massive spending-reduction in the overall package, along with growth incentives for everyone and base-broadeners only for the upper brackets.
And according to Hubbard, Team Romney believes this pro-growth economic plan would generate 4 percent annual growth and create 12 million new jobs in a first term.
So Romney has set specific policies and connected them to specific, positive economic results. He is arguing that a free-enterprise, supply-side program will rejuvenate jobs and economic growth. And he backs this up with an unmistakable philosophy of economic freedom. It’s the backbone of his thinking, and it connects to policies that will restore American prosperity.
Now, I’m willing to concede that Romney’s message has not been refined enough for the public at large. In particular, I would prefer that he harp on the word “growth” far more than he does. And he will probably have to winnow his key points even more (though he has brought them down from 59 to five).
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So there’s more work to do before the big convention speech. But to suggest that Mitt Romney is not an economic conservative makes no sense to me. Look at what he’s saying. And look at what he’s proposing. And then think of Reagan.
© 2012 CNBC, Larry Kudlow, all photos courtesy the Associated Press