No one should be surprised that Mitt Romney turned in a strong debate performance last night. After a string of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds stretching back to the Republican National Convention, his campaign had stalled and was losing altitude. Whereas President Obama merely had to avoid mistakes, Romney needed to pull himself out of a political tailspin.
Did he succeed? The commentariat says yes, but it has a vested interest in keeping the presidential race close. It will take a few days to gauge the debate’s impact on actual voters, but it’s probably safe to say Romney was won himself a fresh hearing.
Most important, Romney used the first presidential debate to reposition himself closer to the political center. This was just the opposite of what he had done during the GOP primary debates. Then, Romney worked hard to ingratiate himself with the ultra-conservative Republican base by attacking his rivals from the right — for example, by lambasting Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a softie on immigration.
Last night, in a bravura act of self-revisionism, Romney recast himself as the Massachusetts moderate he vehemently denied being during the primaries.
In the primaries, Romney had railed against regulation as a mortal threat to America’s “job creators.” Last night’s moderate Mitt sounded more reasonable, embracing the general need for regulation while singling out a few provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law he regards as going too far.
Facing a skeptical Tea Party audience, conservative Mitt had shied like a scalded dog from his biggest achievement as governor of Massachusetts: Romneycare. Moderate Mitt held it up last night as an exemplar of intelligent federalism, an alternative to Obamacare’s alleged federal “takeover” of the health care system.
Addressing rich contributors behind closed doors, Romney infamously denounced nearly half the country for choosing dependency on government over personal responsibility. Before a national audience, including the small but still crucial percentage of voters who remain undecided, he affirmed government’s responsibility to care for the vulnerable.
Romney’s ideological shape-shifting seemed to throw Obama off balance. The president did not forcefully draw viewers’ attention to his opponent’s sudden and opportunistic pivot from hard-line conservative to compassionate centrist.
On the other hand, Obama did score points against Romney’s vague and implausible promises for lower taxes, more jobs, a shrinking federal debt, energy independence and plans to “replace” Obamacare with something better.
Still, Romney has jettisoned some of the ideological baggage he acquired during his successful campaign for the nomination, and is now trying to convince swing voters that he is more moderate than his party. In the next debate, Obama will need to do a better job of draping the albatross of GOP extremism around Romney’s neck. And to parry Romney’s overtures to independent and moderate voters, the president will need to raise his game – by spelling out a more compelling and specific agenda for his second term.
Romney came into the debate as the underdog because of a fundamental strategic miscalculation. He assumed that the painfully slow economic recovery alone would induce voters to evict Obama from the White House. Now he knows he needs to spell out an alternative vision for governing, and last night he began to outline one.
By the same token, Obama shouldn’t assume that he can win simply by rallying his core supporters. He also needs to mount a more vigorous campaign of persuasion aimed at voters across the political center.
Photo credit: OFA/ Barack Obama