So here goes. Imagine we’re 15 minutes into the town hall and a 30-something woman named Sandy is given the microphone. “Governor Romney,” she says, “my husband and I earned $75,000 last year. We have trouble saving up for a down payment for a house. We have trouble putting away money for our kids’ college education. And we can’t even think about saving for retirement. It’s hard enough making ends meet as it is. I’ve learned in this campaign that we pay taxes at a higher rate on our income than you pay on the $20 million you earned last year. How can that be right or good for America?”
Romney steps toward her as he responds. “I’ve thought about this a lot, Sandy,” he begins. “I’ve met too many families struggling to make it, thanks to the awful recovery the president’s policies have doomed us to. And, as you know, I believe there’s a pro-growth argument for taxing savings and investment at lower rates, which is where virtually all of my income now comes from.
“But I also think there are questions of fundamental fairness involved. The more I’ve traveled the country, the more I’ve come to think that it’s important not only that the direction I propose be effective in restoring jobs and growth, but also that my policies be seen as fair by all Americans so we can move forward to renew this great nation together.
“So here’s what I’ll pledge. Once we’ve done all we can sensibly do to restrain federal spending – which we absolutely must do – and we still need resources to balance our budget and fund things like infrastructure and research to build for the future, then people in my fortunate position should absolutely be asked to contribute something more in taxes. And I’ll make the case to the country that this is needed. I know that’s different from what I’ve been saying, but on reflection I think it’s the right thing for the country.”
There it is. So what do you think would happen?
Millions of Democratic heads would explode across the country. Millions of conservatives would shout in rage at their televisions. The jaws of the pundits, producers, editors, anchors and columnists who set the tone of national media coverage would hit the floor in astonishment.
And the million or so undecided voters who will decide this election in a handful of states – along with tens of millions of other Americans not active in politics – will say to themselves: This is a reasonable guy. He’s not like the guy in the Democratic ads. He’s actually a pretty attractive package. What’s his plan to create 12 million jobs again?
Maybe I’m alone in thinking this move at this hour would be devastatingly effective. But what if I’m not? When moderator Candy Crowley says, “Mr. President, your response?,” what should President Obama say?
Let’s freeze the frame while you ponder that question to underscore a crucial point. The fact that this final, ultimate flip-flop on taxes could have such an impact shows how weak the president’s position is. It’s as if his entire campaign has been designed to succeed only against an extremist caricature. Partly he’s vulnerable because the post-bubble recovery has been weak. But this is also partly the Republicans’ fault; the Jobs Act that Obama put forward a year ago would have created 2 million more jobs and pushed unemployment down below 7 percent, but the GOP blocked it.
Why doesn’t Obama ever say that? Is his team afraid the president would appear “weak,” unable to work his will on Washington? Well, no president can work his will in such a partisan era and when a determined minority abuses the filibuster. Why doesn’t the president explain this and call for reform?
Back to the town hall. “It’s a little remarkable to hear you say this, Mitt,” Obama says. “I’ve been saying it for two years while your party’s called me a ‘socialist.’ If you’re agreeing with me now, I wonder what you’ll say tomorrow. Or the day after the election.”
Will this suffice? Here’s the point: Team Obama shouldn’t be planning to refight the first debate. It should be prepared for a Romney who’ll show up with new surprises. That means tying Romney to the extreme conservatives who’ve brought him this far, even if he’s tacking madly to the center at the end. Above all, it means laying out a bolder vision for a second term than the poll-tested small ball that passes for Obama’s agenda thus far – an agenda designed to help the president limp to victory, rather than address the country’s real needs.
Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a contributor to MSNBC. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.