What, Exactly, Does Romney Think Should Be Discussed Publicly?

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From income inequality to West Bank settlements, he says it should all be discussed in private. Is that a real basis for policymaking?

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What policy topics are appropriate for public consumption, according to Mitt Romney? Income inequality, we have learned, is not on the list. That should be "discussed in quiet rooms," not in the media and certainly not under the auspices of Occupy Wall Street. And now we've learned of another topic: Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

From CNN's Monday report:

Asked if he saw the starting point as the borders which existed prior to the 1967 Six Day War, Romney demurred.

"I'm not being that specific. I'm saying that there will be borders that have to be negotiated and what the starting point is something which will be decided by the parties involved," he said. "What the ending point is will be decided by the parties involved."

The issue of Israeli settlements -- which the U.S. has criticized -- "is something that should be discussed in private by the American president and our allies," Romney said.

The idea that everything can and should be dealt with behind closed doors dovetails with Romney's general unwillingness to engage with the press -- he seldom gives interviews to anyone other than sympathetic Fox News anchors, and only took three questions during his three-nation foreign trip. But it's possible to freeze out the media and still communicate, although Garance Franke-Ruta laid out why a "no-comment campaign" is a risky strategy. Either way, it's not possible to deal with policy matters in the same way.

To be sure, some politics gets done behind closed doors; much diplomacy does. But that only goes so far. Eventually, a president has to take a position. Laws have to move through Congress, and that requires debate and voting. Back in April, in a remarkable interview with The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes, Romney repeatedly refused to offer any specifics on how he'd govern. For example: "So will there be some [federal programs] that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I'm not going to give you a list right now." On the foreign trip, Romney tried but didn't really succeed at drawing real contrasts between Obama's policies and his own proposals on Afghanistan and Israel.

Romney's refusal to stake out positions might not be so glaring if not for the fact that he and his allies have repeatedly assailed President Obama for failing to lead.

It's tempting to tie this to Romney's business experience. For his entire professional career he operated in an environment in which it was best to keep one's cards close to the vest and do all the talking "in quiet rooms." Trying to carry that approach into politics is a tough sell. First, it's hard for voters to know what they're going to get -- which could be especially dangerous for a candidate like Romney, who's been accused of, let's say, ideological flexibility. Second, it's not a very effective governing strategy. Just ask Barack Obama, who refused to articulate what he wanted on a health-care reform bill until well into the process, let Congress dictate most of it, and ended up with a massively unpopular law that's proven nearly impossible to defend politically.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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