How Paul Ryan Corrects Romney's Tin Ear

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (left) and his running mate Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) board their campaign plane in Greensboro, North Carolina Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There wasn’t much surprising in Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s first sit-down television interview together Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes. For the most part, the candidates stuck to predictable answers. Romney assured anchor Bob Schieffer of his confidence in Ryan’s ability to become president should the need arise. Ryan said he considered the Obama campaign’s push to get Romney to release his tax returns to be “more or less a distraction” from “issues that matter.” And to a question about why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, Ryan blamed lack of leadership from the White House.

But there was one telling moment in the 10-minute interview. The moment came during a series of questions about popular angst that the rich and corporations don’t pay their fair share.

“Doesn’t fairness dictate that the wealthiest people should not be paying the lowest taxes?” Schieffer asked.

Romney then corrected Schieffer. “Well, fairness dictates that the highest income people should pay the greatest share of taxes,” Romney said. “And they do.” Romney continued: “The commitment that I’ve made is we will not have the top income earners in this country pay a smaller share of the tax burden. The highest income people will continue to pay the largest share of the tax burden, and middle-income taxpayers, under my plan, get a break. Their taxes come down. So we’re not going to reduce taxes for high-income people, and we are going to reduce taxes for middle-income people.”

First off, his assertion isn’t true. Romney’s tax plan would lower rates for the wealthy by eliminating the estate tax, as well as most taxes on investment income. Ryan’s plan would go even further: It calls for collapsing the income tax rates into two brackets, 10 percent and 25 percent, which is more than a 20 percent reduction in the top marginal rate.

Schieffer pressed further. “You say that of course the wealthiest people pay the largest share. But don’t they also pay the lower rate when you figure in capital gains and all of that?”

Romney: “Well, it depends on the individual, what their source of income is. But if you look at the top 1 percent or 5 percent or quartile, whatever, they pay the largest share of taxes. And that’s not something which I would propose making smaller.”

Romney’s answer demonstrates his tin ear: He believes the wealthy already pay more than their fair share of taxes and doesn’t see a need to alter the status quo, failing to acknowledge that some voters think the rich should shoulder more than they do currently.

Only this time, Ryan was there to come to the rescue. He practically cut Romney off, swooping in with an answer that addressed tax shelters, a vehicle used by wealthy taxpayers, including Romney. “What we’re saying is take away the tax shelters that are uniquely enjoyed by people in the top tax brackets so they can’t shelter as much money from taxation,” Ryan said. Such a change, he continued, “should lower tax rates for everybody to make America more competitive.”

Ryan’s quick answer was smart, and it was the kind of save Romney needs. It also reveals the dynamic between the two men—in which Ryan can speak to voters’ frustrations and desire for change, whereas Romney can come across as sounding too cavalier. At one point in the interview, Ryan accused President Obama of practicing “corporate welfare” by playing favorites with tax breaks.

One can’t imagine the term “corporate welfare” coming from Romney’s lips. It sounds too incendiary, too populist. But Ryan can and will say it—the kind of political corrective his running mate regularly requires.

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