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Thursday, October 4, 2012

On the Debate Stage, Romney the Moderate


To viewers of the first presidential debate who knew Mitt Romney only from the Republican primary season or Democratic advertising, the man on the stage on Wednesday night must have sounded surprisingly moderate.

Tax cuts under a President Romney? On the whole, really wouldn't be any. Government regulation? Good for business. President Obama's education policies? Lots to like there. Mr. Obama's health care plan? Would keep some of its key provisions.

Republicans are reveling in the instant analysis that Mr. Romney outscored Mr. Obama on Wednesday night, largely on style points for aggressiveness.

Yet many conservatives, who have long viewed Mr. Romney's ideological commitment with some skepticism, might have been less than thrilled with his tone. Mr. Romney, in front of a national television audience, took the opportunity to present himself as a reasonable pragmatist who was willing to work across the aisle as go vernor of Massachusetts - risking criticism that this was another “Etch-A-Sketch” moment for him, potentially reviving accusations that he is a flip-flopper.

Mr. Romney's responses repeatedly were a reminder of the difference between the tenor of Republican primary debates, where last winter he and his rivals vied to serve up red meat to the party's conservative base, and these general-election debates, where the two finalists compete for the few undecided voters in the electorate's center even as they try to keep their more ideological supporters energized.

The change in Mr. Romney was evident from his opening statement, in which he eschewed get-goverment-out-of-the-way rhetoric to argue for Washington's essential role in society. He told of an unemployed woman in Dayton, Ohio, who recently grabbed him and a woman in Denver, baby in her arms, who similarly pleaded to his wife, Ann, about her husband's joblessness, both women asking, Can you help?

“An d the answer is yes,” Mr. Romney said. “We can help.”

Questions from the moderator, Jim Lehrer, about whether there is too much government regulation seemed the softest of softballs to a conservative. Yet Mr. Romney's answer was not exactly out of the Tea Party playbook.

“Regulation is essential,” he said emphatically. “You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation. As a businessperson, I had to have - I needed to know - the regulations. I needed them there. You couldn't have people opening banks in their garage and making loans. I mean you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work. Every free economy has good regulation.”

Only then did Mr. Romney add, “At the same time, regulation can become excessive” - not “is” excessive, as conservatives might prefer.

Even when Mr. Lehrer, seemingly intrigued, followed up by asking, “Is it excessive now, do you think?” Mr. Romney vacillated: “In some places, yes; in other places, no.”

Mr. Romney's example was the Dodd-Frank law tightening regulation of financial institutions. On the campaign trail, he routinely promises conservative audiences that he will repeal it, period.

But on the Denver stage, he said, “I would repeal it and replace it,” adding, “We're not going to get rid of all regulation. You have to have regulations. And there's some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world.” Indeed, his main complaint was that it did not regulate big banks enough to guard against the need for government bailouts again. Mr. Romney, sounding like a populist, called the law “the biggest kiss” to New York banks that he had ever seen.

Mr. Romney's remarks even roused Mr. Obama to quip, “It appears we've got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation.”

On the defensive early on about the size of his proposed tax cuts at a time of big budget deficits , Mr. Romney hardly offered a fulsome justification for his central economic policy. Three times he emphasized that while he wanted to lower tax rates, he would offset the lost revenue by ending or cutting back unspecified tax breaks elsewhere - yielding no net reduction in taxes.

“I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut.”

“I'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut.”

“Let me repeat, let me repeat what I said: I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut.”

His point was that he was not adding the sum to the annual deficits over a decade, that he could find a way around the political and policy difficulties of ending well-entrenched tax breaks to offset the lost revenue. But the specifics sometimes seemed lost to the thematic disavowals.

Here, too, Mr. Obama got in a jab: “Now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big, bold idea is ‘never mind.'”

Much like George W. Bush in 2000, Mr. Romney seized on the issue of e ducation to signal - especially to women, who lopsidedly support Mr. Obama - that he supports a muscular role for the federal government. In Republican primary debates, the popular answer, and one Mr. Romney has floated in the past, is to call for abolishing the Department of Education.

Mr. Romney did say the primary role in education should be at the state and local level.

“But the federal government also can play a very important role,” he said, adding, “The federal government can get local and state schools to do a better job.”

As for federal spending, “I'm not going to cut education funding,” Mr. Romney said. “I'm planning on continuing to grow.”