In the end, the polls were right. Mitt Romney took first, Ron Paul took second, and Jon Huntsman took third. Huntsman’s weak finish led many to suggest that the GOP was no place for moderates. But the truth is that Huntsman’s campaign didn’t prove that, or anything like it. For all Huntsman’s signaling and hinting, his policy platform is no more moderate than Romney’s. In fact, it might be less moderate.
Huntsman’s tax plan is more radical than Romney’s. It wipes out every deduction and exemption and then uses the savings to cut the tax on capital gains and dividends to zero. That amounts to a massive tax cut for the wealthy — and it comes at the expense of benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which go to the poorest Americans, and the mortgage-interest tax deduction and the exclusion for employer-based health insurance, which go to many middle-income Americans. Romney’s plan, by contrast, only cuts the rate on capital gains and dividends for those making less than $250,000. The two candidates have mostly the same position on corporate taxation — drop the rate from 35% to 25% — but Huntsman adds a temporary tax holiday for overseas profits.
Similarly, Huntsman’s spending cuts are more radical than Romney’s. Though his entitlement reforms remain vague, he promises they will be “based on the Ryan Plan.” Romney, meanwhile, broke with the Ryan plan to preserve traditional fee-for-service Medicare as an option in his entitlement reforms.
Huntsman has gotten mileage out of attacking too-big-to-fail banks and discussing a cap on bank assets, but his proposed remedy doesn’t go very far: “Impose a fee on banks whose size exceeds a certain percentage of GDP to cover the cost they would impose on taxpayers in a bailout” and limit leverage. Romney’s plans are similarly vague: “Greater transparency for inter-bank relationships, enhanced capital requirements, and provisions to address new forms of complex financial transactions are all necessary elements of effective financial reform.”
Huntsman does support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and civil unions. Romney doesn’t favor either policy. And Huntsman has been willing to pick fights with the conservative base — notably on the existence of climate change and evolution — in a way Romney hasn’t. But these fights haven’t translated into policy differences. So it is hard to say that, on balance, Romney’s ideas are to the right of Huntsman’s. If I was scoring the two plans, I’d say Huntsman’s tax and entitlement proposals put him to the right of Romney.
Which is not to say Romney’s plans make him a moderate. On taxes, for instance, he is well to the right of George W. Bush. Where Bush proposed his tax cuts to spend down a surplus, Romney, in a time of massive deficits, is proposing to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent (price tag: $4 trillion) and then add trillions more in cuts that heavily favor wealthy Americans. On Medicare, too, he is well to the right of Bush: A more moderate version of Ryan’s plan is vastly more conservative than anything Bush ever attempted.
Nevertheless, he is, of the Republicans running for president, the least extreme in his policy proposals, and also the most likely to capture the nomination. If Huntsman counts as a moderate, then so does Romney — and so, in their presidential preferences so far, do a plurality of Republican primary voters. They have, after all, not only backed Romney, but they have decisively rejected Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, the candidates aimed most squarely at Tea Party wing of the GOP.