Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver.
For some time now, I've been wondering when Mitt Romney would finally make that "shift to the center" that candidates supposedly do after they win their party's nomination. The need was particularly acute for Romney, since his party is particularly unpopular with the public, and he spent the primaries working so hard to convince base Republican voters that he was, in his immortal phrase, "severely conservative." But it never seemed to happen. Until last night.
There's no question that Romney performed better than Obama in most every way. But what was really striking to me was how different he sounded than he has up until now. If you hadn't paid any attention to politics over the last year and a half, you'd think this Mitt Romney guy must have been the most moderate Republican running this year, and not (as was actually the case) one of the most conservative. For instance, he promised up and down that his tax plan wouldn't benefit the wealthy:
And finally, with regards to that tax cut, look, I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the — the revenues going to the government. My — my number one principle is there'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that — no tax cut that adds to the deficit. But I do want to reduce the burden being paid by middle-income Americans. And I — and to do that that also means that I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans. So any — any language to the contrary is simply not accurate.
This is, as it happens, utter baloney. Romney proposes to cut all income tax rates by 20 percent, and when you do that you are giving much more benefits to the wealthy than the middle class. He says it won't raise the deficit because he'll take away the wealthy's deductions and loopholes, but he refuses to say which ones. And he really can't, because if he did he would have to admit that there aren't enough loopholes and deductions to pay for it all (and by the way, the fact that Obama didn't simply turn to him and say, "Governor, name one loophole you'd eliminate" was criminally negligent).
But 98 percent of people watching wouldn't know all that—they'd just see that Romney sounds like he's being quite reasonable, offering tax cuts that don't help the wealthy or increase the deficit. Something similar happened on health care: he claimed that he'd keep all the yummy parts of the Affordable Care Act, which if you didn't really know much about it sounded great. When the topic of pre-existing conditions came up, Romney lied and said his plan would make sure everyone with a pre-existing condition would be able to get coverage. It does no such thing, but Obama did a terrible job of explaining why, and what remained was that Romney sounded compassionate and reasonable.
And here's Romney on regulation:
Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation. As a business person, I had to have — I needed to know the regulations. I needed them there. You couldn't have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans. I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work. Every free economy has good regulation. At the same time, regulation can become excessive.
Sounds reasonable! And totally at odds with the government-hating Tea Partier Romney was during the primaries. But here's the thing: The Obama campaign is probably not going to attack Romney for this shift, and that may be why he feels free to undertake it. Long ago they decided that they weren't going to attack Romney for being a flip-flopper, but instead would hammer him as a plutocrat who doesn't care about regular people. That's their story, and they're sticking to it, which means Romney has room to shift leftward, if only rhetorically. And you won't find Republicans complaining; an approaching election concentrates the mind, and as long as it looks like Romney has a chance, they're not going to go after him for not sounding conservative enough.
That isn't to say Romney's repositioning is necessarily going to work. There are still two more debates and a month's worth of campaigning left. But it looks like Mitt finally shifted to the center when he needed to most.