Mitt Gets Away With It–For Now

So other than the fading echoes of Republican celebration and Democratic angst from last night’s presidential debate, and the wait we will now have to endure to see if it made any tangible difference in the contest, what should we actually carry away from the event?

I’ve already confessed myself a non-expert on the “visuals,” and on the “energy level” of the candidates, because I honestly don’t give a damn about any of that. What Mitt Romney needed to do last night, however, was relatively clear: reintroduce himself to swing voters as someone other than a distant plutocrat, and fill in the gaping holes (of omission and commission) in his policy agenda. With quite a bit of help from Barack Obama, he achieved both of those goals, at least temporarily, and in that respect he “won.”

But it came at a price. Jonathan Bernstein summed it up nicely last night at WaPo:

Romney’s policy positions are even more of a shambles now than they were previously. Romney’s position, over and over again, is to simply bluff it on policy. His tax plan continues to be the most obvious one, but it really happens across the board. Romney insisted tonight more than once that his tax plan will keep taxes the same for the wealthy, cut them for everyone else, and not add to the deficit. Forget about the Tax Policy Center; just that much is obviously incoherent and impossible. And, more to the point, it’s clear he’s going to keep on insisting that it adds up, no matter how clearly it doesn’t. But it’s not just that; on every policy, he’s just going to insist that the consequences of his plans that anyone might not like simply don’t exist, so that he’s for sweeping spending cuts but insists that no particular program that anyone brings up might lose any funding, or that he’s for repealing Obamacare but those with pre-existing conditions will magically be protected.

In other words, Mitt Romney lied a lot, and his lies extended beyond his own policies to those of the president (particularly in health care and “green jobs”). His self-representation, moreover, as a deeply caring moderate who shares the president’s goals but is far more eager to reach across the aisle, must have caused some bitter laughter behind the scenes in conservative circles. But because the president, presumably quite deliberately, chose not to depict Romney as a liar and a phony, Mitt largely got away with it, at least for the moment.

Jon Chait believes that Romney has finally pulled off his “etch-a-sketch” moment, reinventing himself as the moderate Republican he once seemed to be in Massachusetts, at a moment when conservatives were too terrified of defeat to object, as they certainly would have earlier in the year if he had hedged on his tax cut plan, let his heart bleed all over the stage for the unemployed and suffering, and begged for a chance to work with Democrats.

But atmospherics aside, what did Mitt actually change last night? He’s long claimed his tax plan wouldn’t increase the deficit, and wouldn’t reduce the relative tax burden on high earners. Last night he said he wouldn’t pursue it if his plan violated either of those principles. But since he’s denied repeatedly there’s any risk of that, why should anybody believe he’d somehow sacrifice the crown jewel of Republican policy–tax cuts for the wealthy–when he’s in office, surrounded by Republicans clamoring for it? But you’d best believe a lot of assurances were going out last night from Team Mitt to conservative opinion leaders denying anything had changed other than how Romney chose to frame and defend his tax plan.

Had Obama more effectively counterpunched last night (or had Jim Lehrer not provided the most passive moderation of a debate in memory), Mitt might not have been able to pull off this feat of prestidigitation. After all, when you think about it, Romney is now saying the high-end tax cuts that Republicans want more than life itself just won’t happen unless he can come up with revenue offsets that don’t change the tax burden, and also get through spending reductions that he’s consistently refused to identify (yea, promised to oppose when it came to most popular spending categories). It’s all a gigantic house of cards. And even if you buy the ludicrous assumption that Romney was sincere in his desire not to upset anyone with his policies, his party won’t for a moment let him actually “move to the center.” Hell, they spent the entire primary season roping him in, and even if they let him posture and maneuver a bit right now, the rope’s still around his neck and their brand is on his posterior.

Obama continually talked around the central problem, attacking the vagueness of Romney’s policies and near the end, finally just coming right out and saying Mitt’s hiding something. But he could not bring himself to say out loud that Mitt’s a serial dissembler who owes his political soul to extremist ideologues and depends strictly on a hidden-hand presentation of his record and agenda. I guess it wouldn’t have been “presidential.”

I lost count of the missed opportunities for Obama last night, and I realize a lot of this represents 20/20 hindsight. But if Obama’s goal coming in had been to expose Romney’s dishonesty, he sure passed up some ripe targets. Why didn’t he ask (as virtually everyone expected him to do) Romney to distinguish his economic policies from Bush’s? Why didn’t he mention the Ryan Budget, crafted by Romney’s running-mate, and representing a vast, extremist policy agenda that Mitt has promised to implement as quickly as possible? At a minimum, when Romney was doing his cringe-inducing number near the end about how desperately he wants to sit down and reason with Democrats (in contrast to Obama’s partisanship, no less!), why not challenge him to promise on the spot that he’d refuse to let his party cram through the Ryan Budget on a party-line vote, which is precisely what it intends to do?

I dunno. Perhaps the theory is that with over a month left, Romney can’t possibly keep up his endlessly self-contradictory juggling act, and the job of giving him a push off the stage is best left to others. And maybe that’s right. But it was sure painful to watch Mitt Romney prevaricate for 90 straight minutes last night and then get carried around the room on the shoulders of supporters and media commentators who didn’t seem to notice the distinct smell of brimstone in the air.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.