Throughout the debt-ceiling debate Mitt Romney shied from speaking out. Other candidates denied that the debt ceiling should even be raised. Then Romney extended cautious praise to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for holding the line on taxes. (“Governor Romney thinks President Obama’s leadership has been an historic failure. He applauds Speaker Boehner for standing firm against raising taxes when our nation can least afford them,” said his campaign spokesman.) But where was he on the deal? Well, his campaign said, it was changing minute by minute, so he couldn’t be expected to weigh in. Moreover, the campaign insisted he wasn’t running for Congress so he didn’t need to give a position on a deal he’d never support as president.

Then, a deal is struck. Jon Huntsman supports it. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) oppose it. Nothing from Romney throughout the weekend. Then, once virtually everyone else has weighed in, he issues this statement:

“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced — not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table. President Obama’s leadership failure has pushed the economy to the brink at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”

There is a binary choice right now. We know what Romney says he’d do a president, but as a leader in his party is he urging Congress to vote no and send the nation into default? He won’t say. He signed the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge but now that that approach is simply not possible, does he agree with the half-a-loaf philosophy of many Republicans in Congress or the burn-down-the-building hold-outs? We don’t know. He says he appreciates the spot Congress is in, but what would he have its members do?

Let’s say in the next 18 months Russia invades another country. Romney could rightly say, “If I had been president, Russia would not have been emboldened.” Okay, but now in this scenario Russia has acted, what does he tell members of Congress to do on a host of issues (e.g., cut off aid, impose sanctions, respond militarily)? You’d expect a straight answer. The same is true in the debt-ceiling debate.

The irony here is that Romney has been fairly strong on defense spending. His campaign points to a recent speech in New Hampshire when he argued, “Given what’s happening in the world, we should not reduce our commitment to national security. In particular, we should not cut the number of our men and women in uniform.” So surely he could have, in this statement, given advice to the members of Congress (vote yes or no) while stating what he would do in 2013 if faced with defense cuts of this magnitude.

Romney, for some Republicans, is the most mature and viable contender to go up against President Obama. But he makes himself unpalatable to the base and to even more moderate voters by playing it too cute by half. In other words, he leaves open a spot in the race for a bold, reasoned and constructive Republican reformer.