Mitt Romney either fully flipped or struck a decidedly different note on the issue of extending the soon-to-be-expired payroll tax cut during the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night.
Asked whether he would extend the cut, which the Obama administration has proposed to do -- arguing that it would save the average household around $1,500 -- Romney offered the following response:
I don't want to raise taxes on people in the middle of a recession. Of course not. That's one of the reasons why we fought so hard to make sure the Bush tax cuts were not taken away by President Obama. Look, this issue of deficits and spending is not about dollars and cents. It is a moral issue. It is a moral imperative. We cannot continue to pass on massive debts to the next generation. We cannot continue to put at risk the greatest nation in the history of the earth because of the profligate spending going on in Washington, D.C.
It was a bit of a dodge, and John Harwood, the moderator, asked again.
"I want to keep our taxes down," Romney replied. "I don't want to raise any taxes anywhere. I'm not looking to raise taxes. What I'm looking to do is to cut spending."
The implication seemed fairly clear -- certainly to the Obama campaign, which flagged the exchange: Romney would be uncomfortable seeing the payroll tax cut ended, which is a decidedly different posture than he struck a month ago.
Asked during the Oct. 11 debate in New Hampshire whether he would be fine seeing the payroll tax cut expire, Romney acknowledged that "no one likes to see tax increases."
"But look," he added, "the stimulus bills the president comes out with that are supposedly going to create jobs, we have now seen this played in the theater several times, and what we're seeing has not worked... The right course for America is not to keep spending money on stimulus bills, but instead to make permanent changes to the tax code. Look, when you give -- as the president's bill does, if you give a temporary change to the payroll tax, and you say, we're going to extend this for a year or two, employers do not hire people for a year or two. They make an investment in a person that goes over a long period of time."
That too was a bit of a dodge. So Romney was asked again: "Would you be OK with seeing the payroll tax cuts?"
"Look, I don't like temporary little Band-Aids, I want to fundamentally restructure America's foundation economically."
The ridiculing of the payroll tax cut (of which the GOP has never been a big fan) quickly became the basis of a DNC attack campaign against Romney. His subsequent revision of his position seems likely to feed another round of attacks, certainly considering that earlier in the debate, Romney was declaring himself a "man of steadiness and constancy."
UPDATE: Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesperson, emails the following response, accusing the Obama campaign of trying to distort his boss' record.
This is not complicated. Barack Obama has raised taxes 19 times while Mitt Romney has cut taxes 19 times. Barack Obama has zero credibility with the American people on tax cuts or the economy. The last thing that President Obama’s political machine wants to do is run against Mitt Romney. They are going say and do anything to hold onto power, including distorting Mitt Romney’s record – but it is not going to work.
What the statement lacks, notably, is a clear answer to the question of whether Romney wants the payroll tax cuts extended.