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Ponnuru: What Romney could do in the White House

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Some of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign proposals are bad ideas: His promise to launch a trade war with China, for example. (He doesn’t put it quite that way, of course.) Others, such as his 20 percent across-the-board cut in tax rates, are unlikely to go anywhere. We don’t have much reason to think he could speed up the economic recovery, any more than President Barack Obama could if re-elected.

Romney could, nonetheless, accomplish a few important policy goals – enough of them to motivate a conservative-minded voter to support him:

• The health-care law. Romney has been disappointingly vague about his health-care plans. But if elected, he will face enormous pressure to deliver on his promise to repeal Obama’s health law, and legislation to that effect is unlikely to succeed unless Romney couples it with a conservative alternative.

It is easy to picture what that would look like: Its most important feature would be a change in the tax treatment of health insurance to restrain costs and increase access.

Even if Romney fails to replace the health law, he can be expected to moderate it. The Obama administration’s regulation forcing almost all employers to cover contraceptives – even those that some employers reject as abortion drugs – would go. The United States would remain a country where access to contraception is easy, but also one that respects the autonomy of religious institutions.

• The budget. Raising taxes on high earners would narrow America’s future deficits a bit, while also reducing economic growth. For the most part, though, closing the fiscal gap is a question of how much to raise middle-class taxes, how much to reduce the growth of middle-class benefits, and how to go about doing both.

I would prefer to do all the work on the spending side of the budget. There’s a paternalistic case for taking some money from the middle class and giving it back later. That way, nobody ends up destitute through foolish choices or bad luck. That case has a built-in limit: We shouldn’t raise people’s taxes in order to give them back even more money than needed to avoid poverty.

But enacting deficit reduction might require a bipartisan deal, and thus a compromise that raises taxes and cuts spending. The compromise will probably look better if Romney is president because those who want to keep taxes and spending down will have more bargaining power.

That is partly because Romney has taken the wiser position on entitlements. He believes the growth of Social Security benefit levels should be restrained, especially for affluent retirees, to match the program’s revenue. He wants to let health-insurance plans compete for Medicare recipients’ business on the theory that it will improve the quality of care and restrict costs.

These steps may not be sufficient to the challenge of rising entitlement expenses – the U.S. also probably needs to change benefit levels for today’s Medicare recipients, something both candidates are denying – but they would vastly improve our long-term fiscal health. Obama’s rhetoric during the campaign has ruled out any deal that includes a competitive reform of Medicare if he wins.

• Supreme Court appointments. Romney says he wants to name justices who will follow the law rather than write it.

If they take that approach – as modern Republican appointees have mostly done, though never perfectly – they won’t impose the policies most conservatives favor on abortion, marriage, affirmative action and other polarizing issues. Instead they will allow legislatures to set those policies. That’s the right legal result, and the one most likely to promote social peace.

• The rule of law. Romney wouldn’t be a perfect enforcer of the Constitution; no president is. The incumbent has set a low bar, though, and Romney would be an improvement. As a new report by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor details, Obama has repeatedly ignored or rewritten laws to suit his preferences, bypassing Congress in the process. That’s not the way the system is supposed to work.

Even if Romney were as inclined as Obama to rule by decree, the news media would be less tolerant of high-handedness from him, because it has less sympathy for his agenda. The return of an adversarial press after a four-year hibernation would serve as a salutary restraint on him.

A President Romney would probably not be able to achieve all of these things, and may not be able to achieve most of them. But none of them will happen if he loses next week.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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