Inadvertent disclosures like this one are often treated as a window onto what a politician really thinks—or in this case, what a politician will do. But the very fact that these comments weren’t intended to be public might be reason to discount them. One of the reasons that campaign promises are a reliable guide to politicians’ future actions is that supporters can use those commitments to hold politicians accountable. The proposed changes Romney discussed in that talk are interesting—but his unwillingness to discuss them publicly might tell us more about how committed he is to seeing them through.
Remember that we’re in the age of the partisan presidency. Romney should offer a well-defined policy vision, and the press should take note if he doesn’t. Still, let’s not pretend that we’re too far in the dark about what either Romney or Obama will do as president—they’ll pursue the priorities of the constituencies represented by their respective parties. Jonathan Bernstein, riffing off of Garry Wills, makes that point here; Seth Masket, focusing on Obama, makes a similar point here.
This is something most reporters do understand, and it shapes coverage. There has been such scrutiny of Romney’s views on immigration partly because reporters want to know how he’ll handle the horse-race challenges the issue poses for the GOP—but also because the party is to some extent divided on the issue, and it’s not obvious where Romney will come out.
Still, the basic insight could be applied more broadly. Romney has been vague about his deficit reduction plans because Republican voters hate all the policy options that would do the most to close the budget gap. So what would he do as president? Probably not try too hard to reduce the deficit (which is not to say that he wouldn’t push to cut discretionary spending—Republican voters do like that).
Don’t let it get pathological. Reporters should tell their audiences when Romney ducks or stonewalls or otherwise avoids taking a position. But let’s not make the power struggle the story, as is already happening. And let’s not turn this into a chase for situations that confirm the narrative, to the extent that we obscure or miss the positions that he does take. Buried in many of those stories about Romney’s vagueness on DREAM Act issues are his plans for adjusting the green-card system, and for expanding legal caps on high-skill immigrants. Those don’t happen to be the particular topics that the media is focusing on, but they’re still newsworthy.
Or consider that Face the Nation interview. The attention was on the immigration exchange, but as Jon Bernstein notes, the discussion also featured Romney—who’s generally kept his distance as the rest of the GOP embraces Paulite views about the Federal Reserve—dabbling with inflation hawkery and opposing monetary stimulus. Romney won’t be setting central bank policy himself, but the next president will be appointing a Fed chairman after 2014, and that choice will have important consequences.
And finally, keep in mind Dickerson’s closing point: “So is Mitt Romney trying to get away with something? At the moment, yes, but there’s plenty of time left in the campaign for him to get specific.” This campaign might feel like it’s already lasted forever, but most swing voters haven’t even tuned in yet. There’s lots of time for Romney to put some meat on those policy bones, and to reset the latest narrative about his campaign.