Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Mitt Romney morph from a self-described “severe conservative” into the reasonable, if somewhat aggressive, pro-business moderate who showed up to debate President Obama on Wednesday night. Unswerving fealty to principle has never been Romney’s thing. Still, the effect was striking. The New Romney, unlike the old, looked like someone who could plausibly threaten Obama’s hold on the White House.
His strongest issue was the one that matters most in this election: jobs and the economy. The Old Romney contemptuously dismissed 47 percent of the country as lazy freeloaders who would never amount to anything. His prescription for growth was built upon tax cuts and lots of them, maintaining the Bush marginal rates, and slashing an additional 20 percent on top of that. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center determined that his plan would cost $5 trillion in forgone revenue over 10 years.
In contrast, the New Romney professed ignorance of his own plan and often sounded like a Democratic standard-bearer, with his repeated emphasis on the middle class. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut, I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about,” he said. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.”
The Old Romney regarded Obamacare as a tyrannical government power grab that he would repeal on Day One, and avoided discussing its inspiration — his own Massachusetts health care plan — like the plague. The New Romney proudly embraced that plan and even found a few things he said he would like to preserve about Obamacare, such as its coverage of people with pre-existing conditions.
The Old Romney attacked his debate opponents from the right, brutalizing Texas Governor Rick Perry for his humane treatment of the children of illegal immigrants. The New Romney attacked from the left, scolding the president for the $716 billion in Medicare savings achieved under his healthcare law and for preserving “too big to fail” Wall Street banks. The Old Romney spoke in the idiom of Fox News (”job creators,” “redistribution”). The New Romney occasionally seemed to be channeling Occupy Wall Street (he called the Dodd-Frank financial reforms “the biggest kiss that’s been given to New York banks [that] I’ve ever seen”).
Romney’s triumph came in drawing this distinction with skill and poise against a listless-seeming opponent — he finally shook the Etch-a-Sketch. The unanimous verdict that he won the debate going away, and the insta-polls that reinforced this impression, suggest the switch came not a moment too soon. The problem for him, though, is that the New Romney remains wedded to the policies of the old.
The winning effect and brisk confidence notwithstanding, his tax plan really does cost $5 trillion a year. His bare-bones health care proposal does not extend the same coverage to people with pre-existing conditions as Obama’s does. He may claim to want great teachers in the classroom, but his plan to limit federal spending on domestic programs to 16 percent of the economy would ensure that large numbers of them are cut. And his recision of Obamacare would affect Medicare recipients.
The Romney who won the debate is a stronger, more attractive candidate than the one we’ve seen — but also one who has moved even further from the implications of what he has actually proposed.
Persuading voters that you’re a moderate is a difficult illusion to maintain for the entirety of a 90-minute debate. Romney pulled it off.
But maintaining that illusion for the next 30 days, in the face of an aggressive press corps, an enlivened opposition, and the facts of your own record, will be a much tougher trick to pull off.Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.