Alec MacGillis is a writer for The New Republic.
It's been hard to pin down how Mitt Romney proposes to balance the federal budget even as he slashes tax rates across the board, as he now proposes to do after coming under conservative fire early in primary season for tax-cutting timidity. Like House Republican budget guru Paul Ryan, Romney has refused to spell out how he would apportion the proposed deep spending cuts, the better to avoid Democratic attacks over said cuts.
But at a fundraiser in Florida, reporters overheard Romney getting into more specifics, which suggest that Romney may just be approaching the question of which parts of the bureaucracy to bludgeon with something of an Oedipal mindset:
"I'm going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate, but I'm probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go," Romney told the audience. His words were heard by reporters on a sidewalk outside the event. "Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later."
This is quite striking. Mitt Romney, as everyone knows by now, has pretty much lived his life in hopes of living up to the example set by his father George, possibly to his own political detriment. For him now to be casually suggesting that he'll jettison the federal agency that his father led suggests, once again, that the daddy issues here are rather more complex than meets the eye. George Romney was not just named to lead HUD by Richard Nixon — he was fiercely committed to the department's work, and resented Nixon's attempts to rein in his plans for it, eventually resigning his Cabinet in protest. In their indispensable new biography of Mitt, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman note that Nixon had appointed Romney to HUD as a way to punish him for refusing to release his delegates to Nixon at the 1968 GOP convention:
The snub "was an incident that Nixon could never forget," Nixon aide John Erlichmann later wrote. Ehrlichmann believed the decision to put Romney in the cabinet was purely strategic. "Nixon," he wrote, "needed a few moderate Republicans to balance the Cabinet. What better revenge than to put Romney into a meaningless department, never to be noticed again." But Romney did not toil quietly in obscurity. He fought hard to fulfill his vow to improve race relations, pushing for integration of suburban housing. "We've got to put an end to the idea of moving to suburban areas and living only among people of the same economic and social class," said Romney...
What makes Mitt's training his sights on HUD especially odd is that as governor of Massachusetts, he eagerly took up the mantle of his father's enthusiasm for aggressive housing reform, as part of his push to encourage high-density, walkable, "smart growth" development. But of course, that was before the first great Etch a Sketch shake of 2005-2006. Now, he is the candidate who stands by smiling as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley declares that President Romney will let South Carolina do whatever it wants when it comes to voter ID laws, regardless of whether it conforms with racial discrimination laws; and, apparently, the candidate who offhandedly suggests eliminating a federal department of several thousand employees that oversees public housing and rental vouchers used by millions of Americans, among other duties. Take that, Dad!