A clear victory in the first presidential debate gave a huge boost to a demoralized Romney campaign. How he won that debate, though, is just as significant. Romney won by sounding like the well-informed moderate he has always been purported to be. He knocked a lethargic President Obama on his knees by embracing centrist positions on taxes, insurance coverage of those with preexisting medical conditions, Wall Street reform, the role of regulation in the marketplace, and education.
The Obama campaign cried foul the next day: That wasn’t the “real Mitt”! He retreated from positions he’s held for 18 months! There is merit to this complaint. I’m still knocked out by how Romney was able to get away with claiming he’s not cutting taxes because he’s simultaneously proposing to offset the costs of those cuts. And almost immediately, the Romney campaign walked back his overbroad statement on preexisting conditions. But “He lied!” is a fundamentally a lame excuse in this case. Romney’s ideological slipperiness is by now legendary. How did they not anticipate that Romney would try to soft-focus what is in many respects a deeply unpopular agenda?
Romney continued Operation Centrism Thursday night, disavowing his secretly videotaped “47 Percent” remarks:
The question of whether Moderate Mitt is the Real Mitt is an interesting one. David Brooks says yes. Daniel Larison says no. To an extent, I think they’re both right. Romney is a chameleonic man of little conviction. When he spoke of the 47 Percent at a Boco Raton fundraiser, I have little doubt that he meant every word of it. Conservatives have been talking like that for many years; Romney is relatively new to the precincts of movement conservatism; and so it’s possible he picked up the lingo and passed it on uncritically. Yet it’s equally possible that, after the remarks were exposed, he concluded that not only were they hurting his campaign, but they were logically idiotic as well.
The bigger question is whether Romney’s pivot toward the center occurred too late to rescue him. It’s now October. Voter perceptions and preferences have largely calcified. And from the moment he sewed up the nomination and through to Denver — an eternal-seeming six months — Romney half-heartedly and unconvincingly waged a losing campaign on behalf of movement conservatism. If he wins, I suspect it will be nearly impossible next year for Romney to renege on his promise not to lower the share of taxes paid by the wealthy (though his definition of “middle income” does offer wiggle room). And he strongly signaled that he will not repeal but rather tweak Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.
Practically speaking, Romney has committed himself to a second Obama term — but with lower tax rates and magical growth.
Savor the choice, America!