UPDATE: In an extension of his attempt at re-invention, Mitt Romney is now proclaiming his “47 percent” comments as “just completely wrong.” That is a 180-degree reversal of his position on the night that infamous videotape was revealed, in which Romney said in a press conference that the statement was “not elegantly stated” but essentially correct.
In effect, Romney is acknowledging that a conservative Republican — conservative by today’s definition — cannot be elected president because the American people reject that mindset and the policies that go with it, so he is ditching that persona and once again attempting to reinvent himself on the fly.
In Wednesday’s “Debacle in Denver,” I was struck by one telling exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney regarding education. It began with this statement from Obama:
“So when Governor Romney indicates that he wants to cut taxes and potentially benefit folks like me and him, and to pay for it, we’re having to initiate significant cuts in federal support for education, that makes a difference.
You know, his running mate, Congressman Ryan, put forward a budget that reflects many of the principles that Governor Romney’s talked about. And it wasn’t very detailed. This seems to be a trend. But — but what it did do is to — if you extrapolated how much money we’re talking about, you’d look at cutting the education budget by up to 20 percent. “
To which Romney later responded:
“Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts — (laughter) — all right? I’m — I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college. I’m planning on continuing to grow, so I’m not planning on making changes there.”
That seemed a pretty stark difference: Obama claiming Romney will cut education by 20 percent; Romney claiming that he has no plans to cut education and in fact would continue to expand eduction spending. That exchange helped to set the tone of the evening and was one of the more specific areas in which the new, more moderate Romney — Romney 6.4 you might say — had emerged.
So I thought I’d start digging a little to get at the truth: Which man was correct. To start, I turned to Mitt Romney’s website, in which he outlines in broad detail his plans to cut federal spending. There we find two steps , published below in bold, that Romney promises to implement immediately upon taking office:
“– Send Congress a bill on Day One that cuts non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent across the board.” (Education is considered non-security discretionary spending. If we take him at his word, this is a Romney promise to immediately slash education spending across the board by 5 percent.)
– “Pass the House Republican Budget proposal, rolling back President Obama’s government expansion by capping non-security discretionary spending below 2008 levels.” (Rolling back non-security discretionary spending to the level of five years earlier would require significant cuts in education. And rather than exempt education from such cuts, House Republicans appear to target that area, particularly “education funding and grants that go to people going to college,” as Romney put it.)
We can, if you wish, give Romney the benefit of the doubt here. For now, let’s leave open the possibility that he disagrees with the House Republicans on this one issue. What does he himself have to say about education spending in general and college tuition-assistance in particular?
Let’s turn here to the 34-page “white paper” on education put out by the Romney campaign, titled “A Chance for Every Child”. And what do we find?
“Unfortunately, like a man with a hammer that sees every problem as a nail, President Obama’s policy response to every education challenge has been more federal spending. Increased spending on our K-12 public schools has failed to produce results, and increased spending is already one of higher education’s greatest problems….
Unlike President Obama, Mitt Romney understands that more spending is the last thing our schools need.”
Hmmm. “… increased (federal) spending is already one of higher education’s greatest problems”?
That doesn’t sound like a man committed to preserving let alone expanding spending in that area, now does it? Now let’s bring the focus in tighter still, to those “grants that go to people going to college” that Romney specifically referenced. Those would be Pell grants, a government program for which I have a particular fondness.
Back in my own college days, I was a poor, lazy member of the “47 percent” working nights and weekends and summer jobs to put myself through school because my parents lacked the resources to contribute much. To finance my education, I leaned heavily on what were known at the time as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants. Without them, I’m not sure I would have made it.
Today, most Pell grants go to students with a family income of $30,000 or less, which isn’t much. These are people for whom upward mobility is a real struggle. The maximum annual grant amount of $5,550 isn’t much either, but for those who receive it, I know from personal experience that it is essential. And what does Romney have to say about the Pell grant program in his white paper?
“… as a result of the expanding entitlement mentality, the Pell Grant program — the foundation of the federal investment in student financial aid — is on unsure financial footing. To keep up with the program’s massive increases, the government has been forced to take steps such as eliminating subsidized loans for graduate students. A Romney Administration will refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.”
Somehow, linking a program to “the entitlement mentality” and suggesting it has been overfunded does not sound particularly promising, now does it? It’s a linkage the paper makes not once but twice, arguing elsewhere that “America is fast becoming a society where … a government loan is an entitlement.” That’s GOP-speak for placement on the endangered list.
Now, what about actual numbers? As a policy statement, the education white paper contains no specific data about education spending levels, but do we have other ways of estimating what Romney has in mind?
Yes, we do. In documents focusing on spending, Romney has set certain overall budget-cutting goals as well as goals for discretionary, non-defense spending, which again is the category that includes k-12 education as well as higher ed. Assuming that Medicare is exempted from future spending cuts, as Romney seemed to indicate in the debate, spending on discretionary, non-defense spending would have to be slashed to 1.3 percent of GDP by 2022 to meet his targets.
I used the word “slashed” above. Is that justified by the extent of the cuts proposed? Yes, it is justified and then some.
As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “spending for this category has averaged 3.9 percent of GDP over the past 50 years and has never fallen below 3.2 percent of GDP during this period.” So cutting it to 1.3 percent of GDP, as promised by Romney, would require a deep, deep slash.
In fact, assuming that Medicare, Social Security and defense are exempt from cuts, spending in non-defense discretionary programs would have to be cut by 32 percent by 2016 and 53 percent by 2022 to meet his goals.
And yes, you could argue theoretically that education might made be exempt from such cuts under Romney. Theoretically, that could be true. However, when you consider that other programs in that category include veterans health care, air traffic controllers, the FBI, highway and transit construction etc., exempting education from 50 percent cuts just isn’t likely.
Budget discussions are supposedly all about the bottom line. And here’s the bottom line in this particular discussion:
You cannot simultaneously be the genial, friendly, moderate Mitt Romney on the stage in Denver who claims that he has no intention of cutting education spending, but in fact plans to increase it, while also demanding credit as the severely conservative Mitt Romney out to wean America of that “entitlement mentality” by slashing social spending, including education, to the bone.
It doesn’t — or shouldn’t — work like that.
– Jay Bookman