One of the mainstream media’s oddest reactions to the Denver debate was that Mitt Romney went sharply toward the center. You can cynically assess that argument as an effort to rattle conservatives, but in this case they actually seemed to believe Romney, the hard-line conservative ogre, was once again the moderate governor. This is both misguided and very helpful for Romney.

Romney espoused in the debate a debt-reduction package with no tax hikes. He explained why Medicaid should be block-granted and why the Independent Payment Advisory Board is a terrible idea. He pledged to get rid of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. He defended defense spending. However, the mostly liberal media found him “moderate” and “centrist.” How did he suddenly make them realize he’s not some loony extremist?

For one thing, the media had bought into President Obama’s characterization of Romney’s policies rather than assessing the real Romney agenda. David Brooks seems to have just discovered that the Romney tax plan is not a giant cut for the rich. He writes, “Far from being a lackey to the rich, Romney vowed that rich people will not see tax bills go down under a Romney administration.” Hmm. This was the Romney plan all along.

Likewise, he is thrilled to find out Romney doesn’t want every regulation in the federal code to vanish. (“Regulation is essential. ... I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work.”) Way back in September 2011, when Romney unveiled his then 59-point plan on jobs, he made exactly the same point. I guess the media weren’t paying attention.

Brooks is surprised to learn that Romney cares about the poor and has a strong sense of community. “Far from being an individualistic, social Darwinist, Romney spoke comfortably about compassion and shared destinies: ‘We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled.’” Had he missed Romney's magnificent speech at Liberty University? Then Romney said, “People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. . . . . The call to service is one of the fundamental elements of our national character. It has motivated every great movement of conscience that this hopeful, fair-minded country of ours has ever seen. Sometimes, as Dr. Viktor Frankl observed in a book for the ages, it is not a matter of what we are asking of life, but rather what life is asking of us. How often the answer to our own troubles is to help others with theirs.” Could Brooks have missed Romney’s convention speech (“America will care for the poor and sick, will honor and respect the elderly and will giving a helping hand to those in need”)?

He apparently never heard Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) in one of their zillion speeches or interviews on the subject say they wanted to reform entitlements to preserve them for future generations. (“Far from wanting to eviscerate government and railing about government dependency, Romney talked about how to make government programs work better.”)

Brooks is delighted to find out what Romney’s agenda actually is: “Romney didn’t describe a comprehensive governing philosophy, but he gave us a hint of a strong center-right pragmatic approach. It starts with 1986-style tax reform and Wyden-Ryan Medicare reform and then offers a glimpse of experimental pragmatism on most everything else.” You know, this hasn’t changed; for months this is the agenda that Romney and Ryan have supported.

He is shocked Romney cares for the middle class. (Recall Romney’s Republican National Convention speech: “ In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class. Family income has fallen by $4,000 , but health insurance premiums are higher. Food prices are higher. Utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices, they’ve doubled. Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. Look around you — these aren’t strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.”) Romney’s five-point plan is aimed at restoring the middle class. Maybe Brooks didn’t clue in until Wednesday night.

You could conclude the media needed to break through their own filter to finally hear from Romney what he has been saying all along. Now it is true Romney added some more empathetic language. And we all know how much pretty words and good intentions matter to the left.

Romney certainly did do a better job articulating his center-right philosophy. He was at times quite poetic. He explained, “I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by — by one another. We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same god and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them. And we — we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.”

But really, the center-right Mitt has been there all along. It was, after all, his defense of his own Romneycare plan, his disinclination to trash Social Security and his refusal to repeat the mantra of abolishing the Department of Education, among other things, that made conservatives wary of him during the primaries.

The discovery of the moderate Mitt tells us two things. The media accepted Obama’s characterization of Romney whole hog. And Romney until Wednesday night did a very bad job disabusing them and the country of their misconceptions.

Romney, as I have written many times, is a center-right candidate. He’s not a movement conservative. He’s a free-market believer with generally conservative instincts. And maybe that and his penchant for dealmaking is what conservatives, to their chagrin, really need, namely a guy with a very conservative agenda but the ability to express it in terms that doesn’t scare non-conservatives. Hey, I think we had a president like that once before.