Mitt Romney decisively won last night’s debate in a way that may or may not change the fundamentals of the race. But here are a few fundamentals that his performance has not altered:
1) Mitt Romney’s approach to deficit reduction is deeply unpopular. At the debate, Romney again confirmed what he had during the GOP primary debates: He won’t accept one additional dollar in tax revenues from the rich in exchange for $10 in spending cuts. This is a deeply unpopular position. Polls have shown solid majorities support a mix of tax hikes on the rich and spending cuts to cut the deficit.
2) Romney supports unpopular tax cuts for the rich. Romney’s proposed 20-percent across the board tax cut would disproportionately benefit the rich. Romney got around this by saying: “I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals.” But this is a ruse: He can still reduce the amount they pay, without reducing the share of the overall burden they pay — indeed, that’s what an across the board tax cut is.
Romney also said: “I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans.” This is also a ruse. Romney has said he would not reduce incentives for investment savings. But the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that this would not leave enough high end loopholes behind that could be ended to match the amount of the wealthy’s 20 percent tax cut. So his plan would reduce their burden — full stop. This is a deeply unpopular position: majorities support tax hikes on the wealthy, which is why Romney had to obfuscate the true nature of his proposal.
3) Romney supports a deeply unpopular plan to change Medicare. When you get past the noisy exchanges, Romney confirmed his support last night for reforming Medicare by transforming it into a voucher system in a manner that will, over time, end the program’s core mission. Solid majorities in key swing states oppose this plan.
4) Romney would repeal the the popular ban on discrimination against people with continuing conditions. Romney tried to obfuscate this fact, too, claiming: “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.” Romney has made this claim on national TV before, only to have his campaign clarify that he only would guarantee protection for those with preexisting conditions who have had continuous coverage, such as from an employer just before getting fired.
After Romney’s claim last night, the Romney camp again clarified this difference. This is now a pattern: While millions are watching, Romney claims he favors the ban on those with preexisting conditions. Then his campaign issues a clarification watering it down that almost no one will see. The reason for this is obvious: Polls show strong public support for keeping that ban. The fact is: Romney would repeal it.
5) Romney supports deep cuts to federal programs and a dramatic upwards redistribution of wealth. Romney claimed he would not cut education spending. In fact, he has embraced his running mate’s agenda, which would not only cut education, but would also “likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history,” and “shrink the federal government so dramatically that most of what it does outside of Social Security, health care, and defense would essentially disappear.”
The bottom line is that, for all his success last night, Romney remains burdened by a deeply unpopular agenda. That’s why he relentlessly distorted and obfuscated the true nature of that agenda last night. And let’s face it: He pulled it off brilliantly. The question is whether the Obama campaign can, in upcoming debates and through TV ads, cut through the haze produced by the Romney campaign’s fog machine of dishonesty and reveal Romney’s true agenda to voters. And who knows — maybe the news media will have a crack at doing this, too.