At a forum in Cedar Rapids, attendees press Romney on some of the most uncomfortable parts of his record
Mitt Romney held a town hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, taking an unusual number of questions from the public. Most of the former Massachusetts governor's answers were versions of things he's said before. But perhaps more interesting were the questions, which were almost all impressively specific queries on topical issues with the potential to make Romney squirm. From Paul Ryan's Medicare plan to Donald Trump's debate invitation, a network interviewer might have brought a similar script to a Romney sit-down. (The event also featured a non-Iowan hoping to make Romney squirm, journalist-turned-immigration-activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who claimed he was thrown out of the subsequent media availability.)
The Iowans' questions also demonstrated the degree to which Iowans are familiar with Romney's record, and the uncomfortable spots therein. Below, a summary of the questions and Romney's answers. (Except where indicated in quotes, all are paraphrased.)
Q: Will you sign my hat?
Romney: Yes! But not right now.
Q: What do you think about replacing the IRS with a consumption tax?
Romney: The "fair tax" national sales-tax proposal wouldn't be fair to the middle class. My tax plan eliminates taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for middle-income people. I don't have a comprehensive income-tax proposal yet, "but hold on, that may come."
Q: I'm from Wisconsin, just like "the great Congressman Paul Ryan," who has a proposal to change the way Medicare works. I'm 26 years old and don't think Medicare is sustainable in its current form. "One of the candidates in the race" -- that would be Newt Gingrich -- has criticized the Ryan plan. If you were president, would you sign it?
Romney: I "applauded" the Ryan plan. "My plan is a little different, but we're on the same page. This is a place Speaker Gingrich and I disagree: He called it 'right-wing social engineering'; I think it's an important step." Romney says his plan wouldn't affect those at or near retirement while creating a system "almost like a voucher" for younger workers.
Q: I'm 37 years old, and I don't think Medicare or Social Security are going to be there for me, either. "How would you help us middle generation of people?"
Romney: I propose a combination of raising the retirement age and slowing the growth of payments.
Q: A follow-up -- Social Security is funded with payroll taxes. Would you support letting people keep that money instead?
Romney: My tax plan's elimination of taxes on savings for the middle class would help you save money for retirement.
Q: "In 2008, you mentioned you felt the earth was getting warmer and you felt like man had contributed to it. I want to know ... what your current thoughts are on climate change respective to what you said then, and also why you didn't want to go to Donald Trump's thing."
Romney: "'Thing' -- hahahaha." I think the earth is getting warmer and humans are probably contributing "something" to it, but we don't know how much. I'm against cap-and-trade and would focus energy policy on increased development of resources. As for the Trump debate, don't you think there are too many debates already?
Q: What are your ideas to reform education?
Romney: Most education decisions should be made at the state and local level, but the federal government has a role to ensure that teacher's unions don't become too powerful. The best way to reform education is to improve the quality of the teachers by raising starting salaries.
Q: "First of all, I have a Mitt Romney bobblehead." I also have entered your campaign's sweepstakes to have pizza with you, and I hope I win. My question is, when it comes to illegal immigrants already living in the U.S., "how can we kindly...assist or help them in their need, rather than just rounding them up?"
Romney: Illegal immigrants shouldn't get special treatment. We might give them time to "get their affairs in order," but they will have to go home and get in line to apply for legal status. "We're not going to go across the country and round people up. It's just too big of a task."
Q: "Given the fact that the payroll tax is the primary source of revenue for current [Social Security] recipients, is it prudent to be extending or even expanding the payroll tax holiday?"
Romney: "I just don't like raising taxes on anybody right now." I support extending the payroll tax holiday, but it's a "band-aid" that's not going to turn the economy around. That will take larger reforms.
Q: "What do you plan to do to stop this evil of abortion in this country?"
Romney: I vetoed bills that would have expanded abortion in Massachusetts. "There are things you can do as a president, governor or legislator that protect the sanctity of life, and I will do those things." Would also appoint justices likely to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the abortion debate to the states.
Q: I read an article online about a proposal to have the IRS do our tax returns. Isn't that scary?
Romney: "H&R Block wouldn't be very happy about that, would they?" I'm not familiar with such a proposal but it doesn't sound good. My plan would simplify the tax code.
Q: "What would make you a better debater than the other candidates against Obama?"
Romney: I have good ideas that I can articulate well, and I have leadership experience that I can contrast with the president's lack of leadership.
Q: "I have a lot of Muslim friends, but I have never heard one Muslim condemn Islamic jihad or terrorism. Are you going to continue to give a pass" to Islam? "The only people who call Islam a religion of peace are the Muslims! Are you going to call it like it is?"
Romney: Radical, violent jihadists are a threat we have to take seriously, but they hold "a very different view of Islam than the Muslims I know." Dearborn, Mich., for example, is home to "peace-loving and America-loving individuals. ... We make a mistake if we believe that all people of the faith of Islam subscribe to radical jihadism. I don't think they do. I will not reject the people of Islam. I will reject radical jihadism."
Q: Well, I guess we can tell the questions aren't planted.
Romney: Maybe next time we'll think about that!
Q: We all know about your health-care reforms in Massachusetts, which the Obama administration has credited as a source of its ideas. If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
Romney: "Overall, I like what we did in our state. What we did was right for our state, and the people of our state by and large like it. ... I thought ours could be a model that other states could look at and either emulate or reject it." Also, Obamacare is very different than what I did.
Image credit: Reuters/Jim Young
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.