Romney was a moderate in the debate. But would he be a moderate as president?

October 4, 2012

Early in the campaign, Team Obama made a crucial decision: They weren't going to run against "multiple-choice Mitt." Rather, of the various Romneys on offer to them -- the Massachusetts moderate, the tea party conservative -- they were simply going to choose one and stick with it. 

Eric gray/AP

The thinking was that Romney's various political personas, while a punchline to the press, were key to his success, as they allowed him to be all things to all people, or at least enough things to enough people. So the Obama campaign planned to force him to remain the candidate who won the Republican primary, as that wasn't a moderate enough candidate for most voters.

They've been fairly successful in that effort. This was, in part, because they had an assist from the Republican base, which put the fear of God -- or at least the fear of primary challenges -- into the Romney campaign. That is, until last night.

But during the first presidential debate, Romney presented himself as a candidate uninterested in tax cuts, in love with Medicare, in support of economic regulations, confident in the government's role in the health-care system, and interested in few spending cuts beyond PBS. Romney's policies might be steeped in tea, but last night, he proved his political skills were honed in Massachusetts.

The Obama campaign was also hampered, however, by an overenthusiastic application of the pick-a-Mitt strategy they've been employing all year. Take the first third of the debate, which focused on Romney's tax cuts. The key fact about Romney's tax cuts is that the policy, as he's proposed it, suffers from what you might call a "trilemma": Independent analysts have said Romney can keep his 20 percent across-the-board tax cuts, his pledge to keep tax revenues steady, or his pledge to keep the tax burden on the rich about where it is now. But he can't do all three. His rate cuts are simply too large for that. 

President Obama mostly ignored this trilemma. Instead, he insisted that Romney was not going to pay for his tax cuts at all, and thus the cost of his policy was $5 trillion. That gave Romney the opportunity to reply that no, he was not going to cut taxes by $5 trillion. Obama's response, in effect, was yes, you are. Romney's rejoinder? No, I'm not not. It was a he-said, he-said about what Romney really, truly intends to do. This went on for about 40 minutes.

A better and truer criticism of Romney's tax plan is that we simply don't know what he's going to do. He could, contrary to his assurances, cut taxes by $5 trillion without paying for any of them. He could cut taxes by $5 trillion and only pay for half of them, breaking his promise of revenue neutrality. He could cut taxes by $5 trillion and pay for all of them, but in paying for them, he would almost certainly have to raise taxes on the middle class or cut into tax breaks -- like the preference for capital gains incomes -- that he's pledged to protect. Or he could simply abandon his tax cuts, or some portion of them. 

We don't know what he'll do. All we know is he can't do all the things he says he'll do now, as the math doesn't work. After decades in which Republicans haven't paid for tax cuts, a Republican candidate running on huge, specific tax cuts paired with a "just trust me" on how he'll pay for them should make voters very nervous. That worry is true to what Romney has proposed and to what's wrong with it. But the Obama campaign, which didn't want to give Romney the benefit of ambiguity, tried instead to ignore it and create their own tax plan to run against. It didn't work for them.

Obama aside, the question the debates raised is which Romney voters will be choosing if they mark his name on the ballot. The Romney who endorsed the House Republican budget and chose its author as his running mate? Or the Romney who seemed to have no use for the Ryan budget and barely mentioned his running mate? The Romney who wants to cut $7 trillion from the budget over the next decade? Or the Romney who won't name any spending cuts beyond PBS? The Romney who says he wants to give every state the opportunity to do what Massachusetts did in health care, which would mean handing over quite a bit in federal funding to fund those efforts, just as the federal government funded Massachusetts' efforts? Or the Romney whose health-care plan spans less than 400 words and includes no plausible mechanisms by which other states could copy Massachusetts' success? The Romney who talks movingly of bipartisan compromise? Or the Romney who says he wouldn't accept a $1 in tax increases even if paired with $10 in spending cuts?

One thing Romney emphasized over and again was the need to hammer out his policy agenda through negotiations with Congress. And that, I think, provides the answer. If Romney is facing a Democratic Congress that demands compromise in return for votes -- the same situation he faced in Massachusetts -- he'll be more like the Massachusetts moderate he presented as last night. If he's facing a Republican Congress that's pulling him to the right and threatening to reject his proposals and force him into a primary in 2016, he'll be more like the candidate we saw in this year's  primaries and throughout much of this campaign.

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