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Richard C. Leone Headshot

The Wisdom of Mama Gump

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AP

Forrest Gump's mama seems to have had it right when she talked about life being like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get. It's an observation that also applies to politics, seldom more so than in 2012.

Now of course we have a pretty good idea of how Barack Obama would function as president and we're likely by now to know where he stands on the major issues. But Mitt Romney, even in the closing stage of a very long campaign remains, to a remarkable extent, a mystery, and so too do many of his key policy positions.

Normally you would think when a man is potentially so close to being the president, such essential facts would have been laid out and understood. There are several reasons why that has not happened. Certainly one is that Romney has changed positions so often that he is still a fuzzy character when it comes to specifically what he will do. A second factor is that has successfully stonewalled the media on large issues and small.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After all, campaigns are not built upon clarifying the tough choices an officeholder actually has to make. They are, rather, about how to create an appealing sketch for 50+ percent of the electorate. Still, it's a strange political system that takes this long to elect a chief executive and yet leaves you with some of your most important questions unanswered. How does a campaign get away with it?

To succeed in this approach the top campaign managers must learn, not to seek love from the press corps, but rather how to manage the flow of news to their own advantage whether the press likes it or not. At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that if nothing new is provided to reporters, in the nature of the case, they must move on. (It's also probably true that seasoned political journalists and some commentators actually respect a campaign that stays on message no matter what.) When confronted by an awkward policy question, the technique of making the daily back and forth boring is just part of the game. Be repetitious enough and the topic becomes no longer in the news even if it remains clearly "newsworthy." The press usually tires of pursuing a line of questioning that only elicits the same vacuous replies.

There are several good examples of this dynamic in the current campaign. Think of how the non-disclosure of Mitt Romney's tax returns and his off-shore accounts has just dropped out of the conversation.

Perhaps more important, it's astonishing that we have entered the voting stage of the contest and still don't have a comprehensive explanation of how the centerpiece of the Romney platform would work in practice. Romney's economic plan and especially his promise of an across-the-board 20% cut in income tax rates remains shrouded in ambiguity.

Romney promises to cut everybody's tax rate. He also promises that by closing loopholes he will be able to raise enough money to cover that cutback so that the plan is "revenue neutral." In other words, he is promising that he will raise the same amount of money from tax payers as was the case before the rate cuts. Forgetting for a minute that it is probably impossible to find so many loopholes and the loopholes exist because they have solid support from the public or from powerful interest groups. Quite apart from that, if in fact the plan is revenue neutral, then because the government has no additional revenues, it cannot address either the deficit or the debt. Indeed all it would do is change the mix of who pays what -- and take a guess at who will do well in that process.

You don't need to be a fiscal expert or an economist to understand that these facts punch a gaping hole in the central Romney policy.

But I guess you do have to be someone other than a reporter on the run to hammer home these facts for the voters - to help the public understand what is happening here

Not many ideas as flimsy as Romney's tax proposal could have survived this long. That his has is a testament to the shallowness of the campaign coverage and to the role the modern press plays or perhaps refuses to play. You can't expect more detailed analysis and questioning between now and Election Day. It's just not going to happen. Reporters and editors already writing wrap-ups with less than two weeks to go.

So I guess the corollary to Mama Gump's wisdom might be that in politics you don't often get a box of chocolates; you're more likely to be offered something else -- something that usually that is characterized as coming in a crock.