It remains to be seen whether Mitt Romney’s strong first debate will be the turning point in the presidential race. But it might have been the first real glimpse of what a Romney presidency would look like.
One of the reasons Romney won was that he confidently and categorically denied President Barack Obama’s characterizations of his views. Obama was caught flat-footed, as he didn’t seem to realize that the facts in some cases were in serious dispute.
Consider taxes. Obama questioned Romney’s deficit reduction math, repeatedly pointing to the Republican’s proposals to increase military spending and cut taxes. Romney responded by simply denying this assertion.
“I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney said. “So you may keep referring to it as a $5 trillion tax cut, but that’s not my plan.” When Obama compared Romney’s approach to George W. Bush’s tax policy, Romney replied, “My plan is not like anything that’s been tried before.”
After the debate, Obama’s campaign team hit Romney for being brazenly dishonest. Within a day, they had produced a commercial saying that a candidate who won’t level with the American people in a debate won’t do so in the Oval Office.
Obama tried out this line himself. “When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” the president said on the stump. “But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
By Friday Obama’s own deputy campaign manager appeared to concede to CNN that the $5 trillion figure has been disputed. Yet the fact is that Romney was purposely vague about his tax plan long before the debates. He believes that releasing specifics will leave him vulnerable to Democratic attacks and that the precise details of legislation would have to be worked out with Congress anyway.
Why, Romney asks, should he take hits for some plan that might never see the light of day even if he is elected?
It’s a cynical view of the electorate’s ability to sort out competing factual claims, but it also contains an element of truth. For instance, the Affordable Care Act that became law differs from Obama’s 2008 health care plan, when he preferred the public option to an individual mandate. In Romney-like fashion, Obama later said, “I didn’t campaign on the public option.”
Romney’s debate approach wasn’t much of departure from the tactics he used successfully against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien in Massachusetts. Go on the offensive, flatly deny your opponent’s charges, and show a mastery of the numbers. Perhaps his governing style will also be the same.
As governor, Romney set broad goals that were popular with his base but showed great flexibility in how he would accomplish them. He pledged to hold the line on taxes and mostly did, but ceded ground tax deductions for businesses and hiked some state fees that didn’t travel under the name “tax.”
The components of Romneycare that have given him the most trouble were concessions to Massachusetts Democrats. Romney’s original plan contained a bond rather than a strong individual mandate. Romney also wasn’t too keen on the legislature’s minimum benefits guidelines.
Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature were willing to deal with Romney because they need to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis before they could resume their normal spending habits, and preferred to have a Republican governor take the political fall. They needed Romney’s cover on health care reform too.
Romney isn’t likely to be so lucky with congressional Democrats. But there are versions of the tax reform plan he has outlined and the premium support model for Medicare that could win Democratic support in principle—if a President Romney were flexible enough about the details.
The debate was a warning to conservatives that Romney is willing to concede ground on policy. To be sure, it wasn’t the first signal. The same week, the GOP nominee—who, once the primaries were over, dodged immigration-related questions that would pin him down on amnesty—acknowledged that he wouldn’t deport anyone who had benefited from the Obama administration’s deferred action.
This seeming capitulation on Obama’s executive amnesty comes after a long history of suggestions that he plans to flip on “comprehensive immigration reform” if elected, provided the right political coalitions are available. All of his criticisms of Obama on immigration since clinching the GOP nomination have focused on procedure and the president’s failure to forge a long-term solution to the illegal immigration problem.
Such rhetoric is more John McCain than Kris Kobach, the erstwhile Romney adviser Mother Jones dubbed the “legal mastermind behind the wave of anti-immigration laws sweeping the country.”
Or as Romney prefers to call him, “Kris who?”
So when Romney says he won’t cut taxes that much, or that he’s open to hiring new teachers, or that he won’t cut spending as deeply as his budget outline appears to assume, conservatives might want to take him seriously.
Like most things involving Romney, this is subject to change. Romney won’t attempt to be a bipartisan problem-solver unless he needs either Democratic cover or votes. In the unlikely event that Republicans retake the Senate, all bets are off. But a Romney presidency could conceivably give Congress’s remaining moderate Democrats more power than they’ve had since their votes were called upon to pass Obamacare.
So why didn’t Romney shake his Etch-a-sketch, or make his “pivot” to the center, earlier in the campaign? The answer is that after many months of being viewed with suspicion by primary voters, he couldn’t afford to depress Republican enthusiasm in what was shaping up to be a base election.
If Romney had attempted a “Sister Souljah” moment during the summer, conservatives would have bludgeoned him for months leading up to the election. If he had done it at the Republican National Convention, he would have turned off party loyalists at the precise moment they were paying closest attention.
Now Romney is subtly signaling he’s not an ideologue at a time when even conservatives fear he could lose. And when it helped him win the first debate, the right was happier about his strong performance than they were concerned about any coming betrayals. It may be risky, but Romney didn’t have many choices.
Romney may mock Obama for talking about having “more flexibility” in a second term. But he certainly anticipates that he’ll have flexibility in his first one.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.