On Moderate Mitt

David Brooks, as usual, offers insights:

Always dangerous to bring up politics, but do you think Romney shifted in his debate? Do you think Romney is now sketching a moderate course that will appeal to more Americans? 

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.

Yes, it’s true. Romney’s tax numbers don’t add up. Yes, there’s a lot of budgetary flimflam. No, Romney still doesn’t have an easy answer to wage stagnation (neither does Obama). But Romney’s debate performance signals the return of Governor Mitt. Democrats call it hypocrisy; I call it progress.

You could conceivably build a majority coalition around this framework, winning over more working-class women and some Hispanic voters. The crucial test will be whether Romney can develop, brand and sell this approach over the campaign’s final month.

Most important, Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity. And, having taken this step, he’s broken the spell. Conservatives loved it! They loved that it was effective, and it was effective because Romney could more authentically be the man who (I think) he truly is.

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  • Brad VW

    I think Romney definitely swung himself a lot closer to the center in the debate. I wonder if there is too much far right material from his primary race to make it impossible for him to convince people he’s really a moderate. I’m sure there will be plenty of commercials coming to remind everyone of his past statements.

    A question about one of the tax items mentioned in the debate. If a small business owner is paying a higher tax rate because he/she is just paying at the individual income rates, why don’t they just register to be a corporation? I tend to agree that corporate tax rates should be lowered but to substantially lower the individual tax brackets just to help small businesses seems unnecessary.

  • Kyle J

    I think Brooks is working a little too hard to see what he wants to see here.

    Romney certainly walked away from some of the extreme positions he adopted during the primary season. But there’s nothing there to replace them (as the president pointed out toward the end of the debate).

    He favors regulation of Wall Street, but hasn’t said what kind of regulations.

    He promises to replace Obamacare, but hasn’t said with what (a tough task for him given how much Obamacare mirrors Romneycare).

    He stresses the importance of balancing the budget, but rules out tax increases, defense cuts, entitlement cuts for the next 10 years, and cuts to education.

    It was a break with the Tea Party in tone, yes, but there’s been no outcry from the far right over his debate performance because he didn’t actually take any hard positions that contradict their philosophy.

    Further, if he does get elected, chances are Congress will be controlled by the GOP, so there will be no compulsion toward moderation on Romney’s part.

  • T

    I think Brooks is right on all fronts, but the question, as he says, is whether it’s too little, too late. I’ve never thought that a Romney presidency would be as “right” as it would be center. But that’s not how he’s been portrayed–by either campaign–until now.

  • BrianW

    Kyle J (#2) is right; what did Romney say in the debate that ticked off Tea partiers? Nothing. To say that his debate performance revealed that he’s Moderate Mitt again is reaching. Romney is a politician; he’s going to say what he needs to say to get elected, just like Obama. These two are principled men only insofar as it gets them elected.

    To me, its simple: Romney looked and sounded Presidential to everyone except those who hate him and the Republican party. Romney can’t be painted as a reincarnation of George Bush. Independents saw in the debate that he’s not that as much as people like Krugman and Klein say that he is. His command of himself, his words, his opponent and his space clearly said, “this guy maybe could be President,” which was completely contradictory to the narrative going into the debate, which was, “Mitt doesn’t have a prayer.”

  • SM

    Romney has historically been a moderate. I think he shifted to the right in his debate during the primary in order to get the nomination.

  • RobS

    Good point Brian (#4) there. I saw his effort as one that de-bunked the way he has been painted by many media outlets and the Obama attack ads. The attack is, “Romney would take us back to the ’08 financial crisis because he’s evil” but Romney defends the fact that we do need regulation, but if it takes >2 years to write half the rules to the law, then we operate with uncertainty, etc.

    Example: a friend has a lower mortgage balance now than when they bought in ’09 and now making more money, but they still don’t qualify for the refinance program — the banks are unsure how to move forward and even with 3% interest rates, people are dealing with a mess. Over the loan, this problem will cost him tens of thousands if he can’t get it approved.

    Dodd-Frank update report here for those interested: http://www.davispolk.com/Dodd-Frank-Rulemaking-Progress-Report/

  • Rick

    Now that the primary season is over, Romney can move slightly more to the center. However, his pick of Ryan for VP will keep most of the further right happy during that shift.

  • John

    I think his 47% crack, no matter how hard he tries to backpedal, no matter how well he debates, has sealed his fate with most of the 917,000 undecided swing-state voters — the only voters who actually matter at this point.


  • Chris

    My biggest concern with Mitt as president has never been Mitt. I always thought he was a pragmatist (which every effective president has and must be). My concern with Mitt is an intractably hard-right House of Representatives. Of course, that problem can be corrected within 2 years, just as it turned 2 years after Obama was elected.

    Mitt would basically have 2 years to do something substantive. If his work with Congress was truly bi-partisan (which would have no incentive if both the House and Senate were Republican), he would get 2 more years. As a conservative president, Mitt would benefit more from at least one house of Congress to be Democrat to move the country forward.

    Any lasting future for the Republican party is not going to be divisive but collaborative. This nonsense about birtherism and limiting the vote could still very much cost the Republicans the presidency. It’s simply as anti-American as I can possibly imagine in a land of nothing but immigrants. It’s never about going back; it’s always about moving into the future.

  • JoeyS

    He may have swung closer to center but he is still relying on Paul Ryan’s budgetary agenda which is far from centrist.

    I think he is more truly a moderate but he has put himself in league with folks who have an agenda beyond moderate and balanced politics.

  • Jeremy

    I actually find Mitt’s ability to “re-invent” himself at a whim the most disturbing aspect. I know most politicians do it, but he’s pretty radical in his shifts. At this point, it no longer matters what he says as I know he’ll say something different at the drop of a hat if it will get him elected. I can’t trust him. Pick a side and stick with it, man! Changing positions is ok, but “political expediency” is not a valid reason for it.

  • I find it difficult to learn anything of real substance about a candidate from the marketing game we call a presidential campaign. “The people” like good news and a candidate has to figure out how to give it to them in terms that their financial supporters approve of. I know how hard it is to pay down personal debt especially when your income isn’t growing. I don’t hear anyone talking about the painfull steps we need to take to address the $16 trillion national debt. I do think that Romney is more likely to do it, but I guess I just have to hope that he will. I want to hear a candidate say something like, “we are in real financial trouble and if you elect me I’ll do all the painfull things needed to start addressing it.” I won’t hold my breath.

  • Andrew

    This may be very simplistic (and possibly not correct), but it seems to me that Mitt Romney is reshaping himself to be what Jon Huntsman has always been – a moderate-leaning republican. Given that Huntsman arguably has a better track record as a governor, as well as ambassador experience with China (having a president that understands that culture and global political conversation would have certainly been advantageous), why did the GOP select Romney again?

  • Kenny Johnson

    I’m a left-leaning Democrat and my first thought after watching the debate was… “Who knew that Romeny is pro entitlements, pro regulation, and pro socialized safety nets. He sounds like a moderate Democrat!

    He has definitely tried to distance himself from the far right now that he’s heading toward the general election. He no longer has the need to win Tea Party votes to beat out fellow Republicans — and now he figures they’ll vote for him anyway because they don’t like Obama.

  • DRT

    Let’s face it, both Obama and Romney reshape their efforts to get what they can get toward their agenda. The real question is “What is their agenda?”. Romney’s agenda seems to be President and influence business in the direction of increased liberty. I don’t think any other Republican thought is part of his agenda. So that is what we would get, someone who is trying the best they possibly can, as President, to move business to autonomy.

    Obama showed time and time again that he was not an idealist. He too will be willing to do what he can to get something done to advance his agenda. But his agenda is different, it is much more social and less business focused.

    Did Romney take a hard left in the debate? YES! So much so I characterize nearly all his statements as lies, and I believe that. The effect is that we cannot know with certainty the lengths he will be willing to go because he is willing to hide his agenda to appease the audience. Obama does not hide his agenda.

  • Mickey Grooters

    Agree with Andrew about Huntsman. But Romneys primary goal seems to be that he wants to add the role of President to his Resume. He will shift, change positions, character, language and outlook depending on the audience. Where is the center. He is suspected of being a moderate. Key word “suspected.”. He has been rehearsing debates since summer we hear. What happens in unscripted moments with foreign leaders? Has any one really looked at his job creation effort in Mass?

  • napman

    Scot, you may wish to take in Jennifer Rubin’s critique of Brooks and Mitt’s supposed move to the center. It can be accessed via her Washington Post blog, Right Turn. Point by point, she shows how Romney has been saying the things he said in the debate throughout the campaign.

    The caricature of Romney on the left (as of Obama on the right) is not pretty and more simple than it is true. As a gifted thinker with many contacts on the right, Brooks should really know better, but as a self-admitted sap for Obama, it may take him a little longer to give Obama’s opponent a fair hearing.

  • Patrick

    Just look at his record as a governor. He governed Massachusetts for 4 years, then won re-election. In the east, Massachusetts is a liberal state. Anyone who really thinks Romney is not a moderate ignores the reality of his 8 years of governance.

    Conservatives don’t get elected in Massachusetts, moderates and liberals do.

    Mitt Romney is as left as the GOP gets since Wendell Wilkie. Pols always have to preach to different choirs.

  • Rob F.

    I only glanced at the other comments (my apologies if my comment is redundant)…

    Yes, Romney moved towards this center in the debate. Is that surprising? They all do! Every time! President Obama has been more pragmatic/moderate than candidate Obama (and I am generally an Obama supporter).

    This is what politicians do for the general election and governing. As others have suggested, Romney seems to excel at shifting his views. The Republicans keep asking “Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?”. Anybody want to be those words will be thrown back in Romney’s face in 4 years if he is elected?

    We are told that life as we know it hangs in the balance so we better vote for the right *guy*…is this now or has it ever been true (I am not a historian or poli sci so I realize there may be some instances where it really did matter, but this isn’t the norm)? I know this is cynical, but I will be voting next month.