Ever since the Denver debate, where the “severely conservative” Mitt Romney became “moderate Mitt” before our very eyes, the Obama reelection effort has shifted gears from portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a right-wing radical to branding him once again a flip-flopper. The strategy switch is understandable given Romney’s ideological promiscuity. But I don’t think the change in tactic was all that necessary. Come to think of it, the president should find a way to use both damaging approaches at once tonight at the Hofstra University debate.

The “severely conservative” mantra played well during the Republican primaries. Selecting the truly conservative Rep. Paul Ryan calmed the nerves of the right wing who viewed Romney with even less trust than it did Sen. John McCain four years earlier. But what Ryan proposed in his 2011 budget, the Path to Prosperity and the Roadmap for America’s Future, particularly the transformation of Medicare into a voucher program, is so unpopular that Ryan has soft-pedaled many of his ideas. Don’t forget, Republicans lost what should have been a safe seat during a special election in upstate New York when now-Rep. Kathy Hochul made the race about Ryan’s plans for Medicare.

Worse, Ryan’s specificity has been subsumed by the “details TK” vagueness of the Romney campaign. This trust-me strategy is insulting to anxious voters who are eager to hear where and how both Romney and Obama want to lead this country. Unlike the last debate, Obama must not let opportunities slip by that allow him to remind viewers of the statements and promises made by Romney as he fought to secure the nomination.

Meanwhile, Romney’s political past in relation to his present — read, flip-flopping — has been and, thanks to the Denver debate, remains his greatest liability. His sudden move to the center had the president chortling on the campaign trail that Romney was “trying to go through an extreme makeover: After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative, Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding.”

Romney’s mile-high transformation gets to a larger character concern
about the Republican presidential nominee.


Romney once said he would be stronger on gay rights than Sen. Ted Kennedy. Today, he supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Romney once said that abortions should be “safe and legal” and that Roe. v. Wade should be “sustain[ed] and support[ed].” Today, he’s “firmly pro-life” and supports the overturn of Roe. v. Wade.

Romney once supported and signed an assault weapons ban for Massachusetts. Today, he’s against “any gun control legislation.”

Romney once touted his signature health-care legislation, which was the model for Obamacare. Today, he disowns it.

Romney once believed that the planet was getting warmer and that humans were contributing to the problem. He was even at the vanguard of governors pushing to address climate change through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Today, he questions climate-change science.

Changing one’s mind on a core issue, an issue of conscience, is not uncommon in a politician. In fact, when it happens it should be respected because no doubt a lot of thought and soul-searching went into it. But changing on all of the core issues? This strains credulity and calls into question whether a politician who does so has a core at all.

Romney’s willingness to say anything to close the deal combined with his unwillingness to put meat on the bones of his policy proposals makes him a ripe target. He either stands firm by his current views (I dare not call them convictions because I have no idea if they really are), which don’t go over well with the vast middle of the country. Or he continues his drift to the middle, which will drive his still-suspicious base crazy.

Pressing Romney on both fronts and holding him to account is paramount. And the president has to be the one to do it in a way that blunts Romney’s rising stature as a viable alternative to him. In addition, Obama ought to take Eugene Robinson’s advice today.

Obama has to do more than explain why Romney’s vision is a mirage. The president has to tell us what he sees on the horizon and why that’s the direction we must go.

That will be easy for the president to do since the direction he wants to go is rooted in core convictions known by friend and foe alike.