You only needed to look at the faces of MSNBC’s pundits or Democratic officials in the spin room to know what everyone professionally involved in politics believes — Mitt Romney won big in this first debate. We’ll see how the public digests it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the polls draw close in the next week and that thereafter this race — as was always likely — goes down to the wire.
I’ll let others assess in detail Romney’s assertive presence and demeanor, and the obvious toll it took on the president, who, in split screen shots when he wasn’t speaking, often looked irked or working a bit to suppress frustration or anger.
What interests me most is Mitt’s audacity. Wednesday night at long last came the full-throated return of the Rockefeller Republican many suspect is Romney’s true political nature, if indeed he has one. With one fatal exception I’ll note in a moment, on taxes, health care, education, regulation and more, Romney came across as deeply informed, experienced and reasonable, and as a powerful and articulate critic of the economy’s weaknesses on Obama’s watch.
Romney’s macro theory of the race has always been that in a time of high unemployment and economic anxiety, being a credible alternative would suffice. Until tonight, the polls suggested that strategy was falling short. Now, it looks much more plausible, especially when combined with the iron political law that every presidential campaign eventually obeys: Do what you have to do to get the nomination, and then appeal to the center once its locked up. I expected Mitt to turn to the middle right after he became the de facto nominee, or at least at the convention, and not wait until now. If he wins, of course, Romney and his advisers will be hailed as geniuses for their timing, for bonding the party faithful to the ticket with the choice of Paul Ryan and a conservative-themed convention, and then dashing to the center for the home stretch.
Look at what we saw Wednesday night. Mitt Romney believes that of course we need regulation to make markets work, and that banks need higher capital standards to protect taxpayers from having to bail out their bad bets — yet he also laid out some convincing ideas about Dodd-Frank’s unintended consequences and shortcomings. He’d mend banking regulation, not end it. His air of reasonableness made Obama’s retort that Romney wanted to let Wall Street run wild feel off key. This tone and positioning was emblematic of Romney’s performance across a number of issues.
Health care has always required enormous audacity from Romney. While his attempt to distinguish his Massachusetts plan from Obamacare wasn’t persuasive to someone like me, who has studied the details for years, I think it would have appeared perfectly reasonable to less wonky voters. I won’t rehearse them all here, but Romney previewed his staccato talking points on this matter in the Republican primary debates, and I wrote then that (to my astonishment) he was on his way to a politically sufficient position. That Romney can not only pull this off but also go on offense while doing it (when in fact Romneycare is basically the same as Obamacare) takes remarkable dexterity.
Which brings us to Mitt’s audacity on taxes: What can Obama reply when Romney says, as he now does, that he’ll insist that his reforms end up both revenue and distributionally neutral, so that we’re simply getting the supposed growth benefit from lower marginal rates, especially for small business? The president can call him a flip flopper or mathematically challenged, or assert that it can’t work without taking on sacred cows like the mortgage interest deduction and the tax exemption for employer-provided health benefits, but so long as Romney has Marty Feldstein and other respected economists saying it’s theoretically possible, as a political matter, it’s likely a draw. (The truth is that Romney originally proposed cutting taxes only for middle income earners who would “suffered most in the Obama economy,” before he decided in the primaries to sign on to bolder conservative tax theology to win, so this may in fact be a return to an emphasis Romney actually “believes in” – to the extent that this is an intelligible concept.)
Romney’s critics — including me — are often frustrated that he’s been laughably inconsistent on policy over time. But, as I’ve argued before, from his point of view this criticism really doesn’t matter. Romney’s not trying to win a prize from pundits for coherence or consistency. He’s trying to win the power of the presidency. Actual consistency — as opposed to the appearance of having certain guiding principles — has surprisingly little relevance when it comes to getting to 50 percent plus one. Just ask Ronald Reagan, who pragmatically raised taxes multiple times as both governor and president while winning elections and retaining his reputation as an anti-tax crusader.
Yet taxes were the most striking of the president’s many failures Wednesday to draw contrasts that would have rightly made Romney look unattractive. Amazingly, Obama failed to dramatize the injustice of Romney’s desire to exempt wealthy individuals like himself from any participation in the inevitable fiscal adjustment the country faces. He made the point feebly that Romney wouldn’t go for even a 10 to 1 spending cut to tax hike deal, and tossed out a weird line about Donald Trump, but he didn’t hammer home the insanity and immorality of constantly cutting taxes on high earners when we’ve been at war for a decade and now need to pay for the boomers’ costly retirement.
Indeed, if I were advising Romney, I’d say that atop tonight’s performance, if Romney said he’d be open to top earners bearing a greater tax burden as part of broader changes that get our long term fiscal house in order, he’d knock out the single most indefensible policy choice that lets Democrats brand him justly as nefarious. He must have reasons for not doing this, but with Romney, who knows what’s coming? Maybe in the next debate he’ll say he’s thought it over and that people like him may need to pay something more, and he’ll score big with independent voters.
Obama’s other striking omission was his failure to slam the Republican Congress for its failure to cooperate on what was essentially a Republican-style health reform. Again, the president hit the point once, but feebly. He left Romney looking like a leader who could pass a major health reform on a bipartisan basis, and Obama as lacking the chops to do the same in Washington. That’s unfair to Obama — as in the first years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Republicans were determined in 2009 and 2010 to do everything in their power to foil major health reform or to gain politically if it passed. But Obama failed completely to articulate this reality for the viewing audience.
It’s hard to know what the president or his team were thinking Wednesday night. Maybe those who said it is a rattling experience for any president used to sycophants to be confronted in public by a forceful critic were right: This throws a man off his game. Maybe the campaign figured its ads could do the dirty work while Obama took the high road while on stage. But whatever Team Obama thought before Wednesday night, it’s about to change. Because based on the first debate, it’s a recipe for defeat.
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.