Mitt Romney’s forceful debate performance on Wednesday night went a long way toward refuting the view of the former governor as a gaffe-prone, awkward speaker. He was nimble in his arguments. He seemed clear-headed and competent — more like the Romney that Massachusetts voters remember from the mid-’00s than the more recent, harsher candidate trying to appeal to the right wing.
Romney’s sudden relaunch puts the presidential race back where it was before the conventions, when Democratic attacks and Romney’s own statements began to tarnish his image. It clears the way for the more principled contest that seemed likely when Romney chose Representative Paul Ryan, the GOP’s chief budget expert, as his running mate.
If that race is to take place, however, Romney has to be a lot clearer on his tax, budget, and health care numbers, many of which were misleadingly presented on Wednesday night. Some involved hyperbole — like the charge that President Obama doubled the budget deficit (he has cut it, though not as much as he promised), or that Obama’s reduction in future reimbursements for Medicare providers represents an actual cut in benefits (it does not), or that it has driven people out of Medicare Advantage plans (it hasn’t, at least not yet).
In fact, it is Romney’s plans for the deficit and Medicare that should be under the microscope, because they don’t match up with his solemn pledges Wednesday. “It’s not just an economic issue — I think it’s a moral issue,” Romney said of the deficit. But his effort to repackage his policy positions to make them less threatening and more centrist has washed away any evidence of fiscal conservatism.
Consider his promise of an additional 20-percent reduction in income-tax rates — the one that would indeed subtract $5 trillion in revenue. He says he would pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions, and brushed aside Obama’s suggestion that this would burden the middle class. (In fact, most independent analysts say he can’t cover the $5 trillion without cutting deductions for the middle class.) In any case, all the savings would go toward Romney’s new, additional tax cut. But he would also extend the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts for all income levels. How would he offset that? He hasn’t said, but on Wednesday he suggested it would be through faster economic growth. This trope dates back to the 1980s, when it was disproved under the Reagan administration, which cut taxes, increased the rate of economic growth but still ballooned the deficit.
On Medicare, Romney went out of his way to reassure recipients, promising to “put that [$716 billion] back in Medicare for our seniors.” In fact, there is no $716 billion sitting in escrow for seniors; Romney would simply increase payments to insurance companies, hospitals, drug companies, and other providers, while seniors get no added benefit. At that higher level of reimbursements, Medicare would become insolvent in 2016, eight years sooner than under the current law.
Obama spent much of Wednesday’s debate asleep at the switch. As Romney trashed Obama’s clean-energy initiative (claiming, in a wild overstatement, that half of the companies involved in it went bankrupt) and health plan (saying it would cause people to lose their insurance), the incumbent hurt his own cause through his refusal to fight back.
Somehow, Obama failed to anticipate the long-expected “Etch a Sketch” moment, when Romney shook away the ideological excesses of the primaries. But the surprise is that he hasn’t changed many of his positions — just found new ways to obscure their downsides. Is Romney really more steadfast in his defense of entitlements than Obama? Or is he just muddying the waters?
In the upcoming debates, Romney should be clearer about his intentions, and Obama should show up better prepared to defend his record.