The news overnight was that Mitt Romney had decided to do a mea culpa for the secretly recorded “47 percent” remarks that rocked his campaign a few weeks ago, calling them “just completely wrong” in an interview with Sean Hannity.
This came 24 hours after a debate in which Romney labored to present himself as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, objecting insistently when President Obama tried to link him to conservative economic ideas that would threaten the safety net. And it came a little over a week after Romney invoked his own Massachusetts healthcare law – a law that served as the blueprint for Obamacare and that Romney ignored as much as possible during the Republican primaries -- as proof of his commitment to aiding poor and middle-class Americans.
These developments are leading the press to declare that Romney is moving to the center – and some pundits to celebrate the supposed return of Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate. But this is a complete misreading of what Romney’s actually up to.
Yes, it’s true, he’s been striking a more moderate tone of late. And for good reason. In the Obama era, the Republican Party has moved far to the right, reflexively opposing every major Obama initiative (even those grounded in traditionally Republican principles) and imposing stringent purity tests on its own candidates. The result is that the GOP never bothered these past four years to formulate a coherent and marketable policy blueprint. To the masses, the GOP’s main selling point has been – and continues to be – this simple message: We’re not Obama. To the extent the party has spelled out affirmative policy ideas, it’s mainly created headaches for Republican candidates running in competitive general election contests.
Romney has long been aware that he can’t actually run on the ideas that his party has generated these past few years, but he’s been further constrained by the right’s deep suspicion of his own ideological credentials. Thus, Romney has spent most of the general election campaign awkwardly switching between vague, broad-stroke pronouncements aimed at swing voters and gestures that mesh with the radicalized, Obama-phobic spirit of today’s GOP base.
What’s changed in the last week or so is the balance: Romney is now primarily pitching his message at non-GOP base voters – people who are likely to recoil at the implications of the policy ideas that the national Republican Party has embraced – and skipping the red meat.
His debate exchange with Obama over taxes is a perfect example. Romney is clearly vulnerable on the issue; the plan he’s presented would slash tax rates in a way that disproportionately benefits the wealthy, and would either explode the deficit or require the elimination of popular, widely used tax deductions. This reflects the actual priorities of the Republican Party, but it’s also at odds with what most Americans (who consistently tell pollsters they don’t like deficits and want taxes on the wealthy raised, and who are fond of their tax deductions) want. Romney’s solution: Insist during the debate that the rich won’t get a tax break and that the deficit won’t explode and avoid specifying any deductions that might be on the chopping block. Given his strong delivery (and Obama’s inability to force him off his script), Romney probably succeeded in sounding reasonable and moderate to most casual viewers.
He played the same game on other sensitive subjects that came up during the debate, like healthcare and education, and his decision to repudiate his own “47 percent” remarks – something he refused to do when the tape was first released a few weeks ago – marks another step toward the rhetorical middle.
Comparisons between Romney now and George W. Bush in 2000 are becoming popular, since Bush employed the same basic strategy in his campaign that Romney used in the debate. There’s an important difference, though: Bush’s platform actually included some nods to moderation. With Romney, it’s only his words.
For instance, Bush called for an expanded federal role in education, which translated into No Child Left Behind, and for federal action to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, which led to the creation of Medicare Part D during his presidency. You can certainly take issue with how these laws were crafted and implemented, but Bush’s willingness to pursue them at all represented a break from conservative dogma.
But Romney’s actual platform contains no moderate planks. For instance, he tried to assuage middle-of-the-road voters on healthcare by insisting during the debate that he would repeal Obamacare without sacrificing its popular features, like a ban on the denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions. “No. 1,” Romney said, “preexisting conditions are covered under my plan.” It’s essential for any candidate trying to appeal to general election swing voters to say this, but the actual policy Romney has proposed would not have the effect he described.
Education is another example, with Romney asserting that, “I love great schools. And the key to great schools, great teachers. So I reject the idea that I don't believe in great teachers or more teachers.” Again, this is tonally in line with what middle-of-the-road voters want to hear, but where is the policy to back it up? As president, Obama presided over a stimulus program that saved hundreds of thousands of teachers’ jobs, and he proposed further action through the American Jobs Act last fall. Romney has railed against both of those programs and not offered any blueprint for hiring more teachers.
This is probably why conservative opinion-leaders seem so unbothered by Romney’s shift to the middle. They recognize that it makes him sound more agreeable to swing voters and that it could help in how he’s portrayed through the media. And they also realize that no matter how much he talks like one, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that a President Romney would govern like a moderate.