Mitt Romney rolled out a major chunk of his economic agenda yesterday, and we'll say this for it: His ideas are better than President Obama's. Yet the 160 pages and 59 proposals also strike us as surprisingly timid and tactical considering our economic predicament. They're a technocrat's guide more than a reform manifesto.
The rollout is billed as Mr. Romney's "plan for jobs and economic growth," and it rightly points out that to create more jobs requires above all faster growth. This may seem like common sense, but it's a notable break from the Obama Administration's penchant for policies that "target" jobs rather than improving overall incentives for job creation. So we have had policies for "green jobs," or construction jobs, or teaching jobs, or automobile jobs, or temporary, targeted tax cuts for jobs—even as the economy struggles.
Mr. Romney seems to understand that the private economy will inevitably produce millions of new jobs—in industries and companies we can't predict—when it resumes growing at 3% or more. This is an important philosophical distinction that drives most of the Romney agenda.
So it's good to see the former Massachusetts Governor endorse the House GOP effort to review and approve major new regulations that cost more than $100 million. Mr. Romney also joins the other GOP candidates in vowing to repeal ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank. He'd pull the Energy Department from the role as venture capitalist that it has pursued since the Bush Administration, re-focusing it back on basic research, rather than backing solar companies that go bankrupt.
His section on "human capital" is also laudable, pointing out how little sense it makes to educate the world's smartest young people in our universities only to send them home after they graduate. He'd offer more visas to keep more of them here. The former Bain Capital executive would also apply his management skills to revamping the vast federal job-training archipelago, with its 47 programs. His proposal for "personal reemployment accounts" for laid-off workers isn't a new idea but it is worth trying.
Where the Governor is less persuasive is on the larger issues of taxes, spending, entitlements and trade. Here he ducks and covers more than he needs to.
On taxes, Mr. Romney would immediately cut the top corporate income-tax rate to 25% from 35%. His advisers say there's already a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. rate hurts American companies, and they're right. Even Mr. Obama agrees.
But on other taxes, Mr. Romney shrinks from a fight. He says he favors tax reform with lower individual tax rates but only "in the long run." His advisers say that means in the first two years of his Presidency, but then why not sketch out more details?
The answer may lie in his proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax—but only for those who earn less than $200,000 a year. This eviscerates most of the tax cut's economic impact and also suggests that he's afraid of Mr. Obama's class warfare rhetoric. He even picked Mr. Obama's trademark income threshold for the capital gains cut-off.
If Mr. Romney thinks this will let him dodge a class warfare debate, he's fooling himself. Democrats will hit him anyway for opposing Mr. Obama's proposal to raise taxes on higher incomes, dividends and capital gains in 2013. Perhaps Mr. Romney feels that his wealth and background make him especially vulnerable to the class charge, but if he won't openly make the economic case for lower tax rates he'll never get Congress to go along.
On spending, Mr. Romney joins the GOP's "cut, cap and balance" parade, setting a cap on spending over time at 20% of GDP. What Mr. Romney doesn't do is provide even a general map for how to get there, beyond cutting spending on nonsecurity domestic programs by 5% upon taking office.
He praises Paul Ryan for making "important strides" on Medicare but says his plan "will differ," without offering details. He also says there are a "number of options" to reform Social Security without endorsing any of them. We are told those specifics will come later. It's hardly unusual for candidates to avoid committing to difficult proposals, but it won't help Mr. Romney contrast his leadership with Mr. Obama's.
By far the most troubling proposal is Mr. Romney's call for "confronting China" on trade. This is usually a Democratic theme, but Mr. Romney does Mr. Obama one worse by pledging to have his Treasury brand China a "currency manipulator" if it doesn't "move quickly to bring its currency to full value." He'd then hit Beijing with countervailing duties.
Starting a trade war is a rare policy mistake that Mr. Obama hasn't made, but Mr. Romney claims it is a way to faster growth. His advisers say he doesn't favor a 25% tariff on Chinese goods as some in Congress do, but once a President unleashes protectionist furies they are hard to contain.
His economic aides say this idea comes directly from Mr. Romney himself, which is even less reassuring. It looks like a political maneuver to blunt the criticism he'll receive because some of Bain Capital's companies sent jobs overseas, or perhaps this is intended to win over working-class precincts in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But giving Americans the impression that a trade war will bring those jobs back to the U.S. is offering false hope. It also distracts from the other fiscal and regulatory reforms that are needed to attract capital and create jobs.
The biggest rap on Mr. Romney as a potential President is that it's hard to discern any core beliefs beyond faith in his own managerial expertise. For all of its good points, yesterday's policy potpourri won't change that perception.