No, Romney Did Not “Move to the Center” in Debate

Before it becomes a kind of Fact-Made-Fact-By-Repetition, I’d like to challenge the much-assumed idea that in the first presidential debate Mitt Romney “moved to the center” in a real, substantive way. This seems to be the conclusion of many Democrats, many in the MSM, and of those few Republicans who occasionally object to the endless rightward drift of the GOP.

Sure, his rhetoric sounded more moderate. But when you look at the details, nothing changed.

Was it heresy to say healthy markets require regulation? Not unless you are the sort of person who wonders if we ought to privatize sidewalks.

Did he back off on his tax-cut proposal? No, he’s always claimed his tax plan would not reduce the tax burden on the wealthy or boost the deficit. And he’s never accepted the $5 trillion price tag placed on his proposed rate cuts by the Tax Policy Center.

Was his solicitude for Medicare anything new? No, he’s been ranting about Obama’s “Medicare cuts” for ages, which is far less startling than hearing his running-mate do the same thing. Did Romney back down at all from his determination to dump Medicaid on the states with ratcheted-down funding (and yes, that’s what current-spending-plus-one-percent means unless you think medical inflation is suddenly vanishing), giving Republican governors eager to cut eligibility all the encouragement they need?

Was anyone moved by his alleged concern for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions? This is a lie he’s been repeating at least since the “repeal and replace” debate among Republicans that preceded the Supreme Court decision on ACA, and his own staff had to repudiate the idea that it represented anything new even as the “new Romney” talk was pervading the spin room.

How about his denial that he favors cuts in education funding? The whole key to the Romney/Ryan “vision” on non-defense discretionary spending is that nobody has to support specific cuts in anything: we’ll just have freezes and across-the-board cuts, and the dirty work will all be handled by the appropriators very late at night. I certainly didn’t hear him repudiate his “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge to permanently reduce federal spending to a level incompatible with maintenance of the New Deal/Great Society programs or the levels of non-defense discretionary spending we’ve seen since the Eisenhower administration.

Now Romney did mention his voucherization proposal for K-12 federal education spending, which is very immoderate if you consider it would channel federal funds directly into the pockets of Louisiana Bible Academy operators, but Obama let that go entirely.

And then most strikingly, there was Romney’s pious talk about how he’s not going to be a rigid partisan like Obama (who should have displayed a pair of worn-out shoes he demolished during the months he spent chasing Republicans around Capitol Hill trying to get them to talk to him about health reform or the stimulus legislation), because the very first thing he’ll do is eagerly sit down with Democrats to compromise with them about the nation’s problems.

If that sounded familiar to older folks, it’s because that was precisely the pitch George W. Bush made in 2000 to assuage worried Democrats and independents that the sponsorship of his candidacy by the entire conservative movement in full battle array should not alarm them. It turned out the Bush’s idea of “bipartisan compromise” was mostly to “do it my way,” but at least he was operating in a Republican Party where “compromise” was not synonymous with “treason.” Aside from all that, Mitt refused on Wednesday night to move an inch from his categorical opposition to any tax increase, or any defense spending reduction, as part of a solution to the deficit problem, and when you take those two items off the table, there’s no much left to “compromise” about, other than the exact distribution of pain to the lower- and middle-classes, is there?

If Mitt agrees as a good will gesture to preemptively oppose any effort by Congressional Republicans to enact the Ryan Budget on a straight party-line vote using budget reconciliation procedures (just as Bush did with his tax cuts after all the “bipartisanship” talk), then maybe we can take his “hands across the partisan divide” talk a bit more seriously. But at this point it’s just empty BS.

And then, above all, there’s the fact that thanks to the discussion framing of Jim Lehrer and the passivity of Barack Obama, a whole host of domestic issues on which Mitt can in no conceivable way be called a “moderate” never came up. Is it “moderate” to call for the complete destruction of Planned Parenthood, as Romney has done repeatedly? How about Mitt’s pledges to work for the abolition of abortion rights for the 99.9% of women whose pregnancies are not the result of rape or incest? In this day and age, is hard-core opposition to same-sex marriage or even civil unions “moderate?” Does Mitt’s status as the first Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater to suggest that labor unions have no legitimate place in the American economy “centrist?” Is there any way his own father would have approved of his “messages” on welfare policy?

Nossir. What we are seeing is the illusion created by a context-change wherein Mitt no longer has to pretend to be even more conservative than he’s been forced to be by his constant promises to the conservative movement. Dave Weigel is right to point out that the joy of the Right in watching Romney beat Barack Obama in the debates has given him a lot more maneuvering room than he’s had up until now. But he hasn’t really exercised it. He hasn’t make a single substantive change in his policy proposals that should discomfit Tea Folk. So let’s all calm down a bit in hailing “Moderate Mitt.”

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.