Column: Passing and punting on the campaign trail

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney, returning to New Hampshire Monday with his new running mate, lasted only about 30 seconds before stumbling right into the issue that has dogged his candidacy like no other.

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney, returning to New Hampshire Monday with his new running mate, lasted only about 30 seconds before stumbling right into the issue that has dogged his candidacy like no other.

"Gosh, I feel like I'm almost a New Hampshire resident," the winner of the New Hampshire Republican Primary told the crowd at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. "It would save me some tax dollars, I think."

D'Oh! Does Mr. Thirteen Percent really want to remind everybody how determined he is to keep his tax returns private?

Maybe so. The Republican standard-bearer seems to take a stubborn pride in his refusal to cough up details. My colleague Greg Sargent argues that Romney seems to be running a "just trust me" campaign that extends beyond 1040s and into the policy realm. It's an intriguing observation, and so I kept an ear out for specifics as I listened to Romney and Paul Ryan hold their joint town-hall meeting at Saint Anselm. Sure enough, they spoke and fielded questions for about an hour, but deftly avoided detail.

"I'm going to do five things when I'm in Washington," Romney announced. This was a promising start.


"No. 1, we're going to take advantage of our energy resources," he offered. Excellent! Drilling? Pipelines? Nuclear? Romney did not say: Just trust him.

"No. 2, I'm going to make sure that our schools are second to none," Romney said. "We need our kids to have the skills to succeed. That's No. 2," he went on. Thus ended the education-policy segment of the program.

"No. 3, I want trade that works for America," Romney said. The closest he got to specifics here was to say he would "crack down on cheaters like China when they play on an unfair basis."

"Go, Mitt!" somebody shouted.

Mitt did go -- right to No. 4, to "show America that this team can put America on track to a balanced budget and stop the deficit spending."

"Mitt, Mitt, Mitt, Mitt, Mitt!" the audience chanted.

He moved on to No. 5: reducing regulations. And here he had a specific, sort of: "I want to make sure that we get 'Obamacare' out of the way and replace it with something, which will help encourage job growth in this country."

Replace it with ... something?


Of course, Romney is hardly the first presidential candidate to avoid specific commitments and promises. His opponent, President Obama, was caught on a hot mic telling Russia's Dmitry Medvedev to wait until after the election for a new Russia policy.

The difference with Obama, though, is he has already established a track record in office. By declining to put meat on the bones of his policy proposals, Romney wouldn't have any mandate from the voters if he does defeat Obama. In policy speeches, he's somewhat more specific than he is at typical campaign stops, but even then there's nothing resembling a comprehensive plan for budget balancing, job creation or tax reform.

Romney and Ryan, in rolled-up sleeves and open collars, took the stage at Saint Anselm to the orchestral tune "Tryouts," from the college-football film "Rudy." This was appropriate, because the two men were about to pass and punt on issue after issue.

Ryan, the policy wonk of the pair, teased the crowd with the prospect of specific proposals ("We're going to win this debate about Medicare!") but then floated the idea of letting younger Americans, when they retire, to "have a choice of guaranteed coverage options, including traditional Medicare." That is a specific policy -- but it's not Ryan's; he would phase out traditional Medicare.

Still, that was apparently enough detail for one day. "I won't go into all the things that we're proposing to do to get jobs back, because I want to leave something for Mitt to talk about," Ryan said. "The point is, we're offering you solutions."

Just trust them.

In fact, Romney didn't furnish the promised proposals, and his foreign policy didn't get much more elaborate than "American strength is critical."

The audience members were friendly, but they wanted more details. His plan to reduce the debt?


"We want to grow this economy and cut federal spending."

His tax plan? "I will not raise taxes on the American people."

His Afghanistan plan? "Bring our men and women home and do so in a way consistent with our mission."

His plan to reduce student costs? "Make sure that when you graduate, you can get a job."

Just trust him.

Dana Milbank's email address is .

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