“I'm not sure I'm the nominee yet,” Mitt Romney said during Tuesday night’s Republican presidential primary.
Well, OK. But Romney’s debate strategy didn’t hint at that much uncertainty. The former Massachusetts governor, whose performance won plaudits down the line, wasn’t desperately trying to hang on to his front-runner banner. In answers on health care, trade, and legislative practicality, he was hunting bigger game.
Evidence of that came in his acknowledgement that he was, in fact, the Massachusetts governor at one point, a full election cycle and a half ago, but chief executive of Kennedyland nonetheless. “I was the governor of a state that had a few Democrats,” he conceded. Not the bowed admission of a man frantic for votes in a Republican primary, which entertains the electoral passions of fewer Democrats.
That tack sets up Romney for a match against President Obama. While Romney may say he's unsure he’s the nominee, his approach hints at a certain confidence that he probably will be. Five things Romney did to help himself, and three things he did to hurt himself:
1. Skinny Kid With a Funny Name
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Was this line Barack Obama describing George W. Bush, or Mitt Romney describing Barack Obama? “He's divided the nation and tried to blame other people. The real course for America is to have someone who is a leader, who can identify people in both parties who care more about the country than they care about getting reelected. There are Democrats like that. There are Republicans like that.” That was Romney, on Tuesday night, sounding a lot like Obama. Conceding that there is only so much political rhetoric under the sun, Romney came perilously close to violating the Reagan Commandment by conceding that some Republicans are like some Democrats. That’s general-election talk.
2. Smiling All the Way to the Bank
While Jon Huntsman preached long-view policies with China, Romney was again confrontational. He has vowed to “clamp down” on China. When Huntsman needled, “I don’t subscribe to the Don Trump School or the Mitt Romney School of international trade,” Romney parted company with the former ambassador to China. In doing so, he also split with many of the Chamber of Commerce, establishment Republicans leery of confronting the United States’ second-largest trade partner. “If you’re not willing to stand up to China, you’ll get run over by China,” Romney said. And: “The Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank.” Antagonism toward China resonates nicely with not just the tea party’s debt concerns, but independents’ debt concerns and labor unions, who have long harbored grievances over Chinese worker treatment.
3. Health Care, I Care
Romney’s unabashed proclamation that Massachusetts supports his health care law by a 3-to-1 ratio would likely not have surfaced in a primary where he didn’t have a spray of candidates competing for votes on his right. But there it was on Tuesday night. “I'm proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my state,” Romney said, tip-toeing through the individual-mandate tulips. The plan – which blended new insurance plans, expansions of entitlement programs, public subsidies, and stipulations aimed at cost control – served as a template for Obama’s health care expansion, a fate that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s camp highlighted on Tuesday. It’s a hamstring pull for Romney in the primary, but an equalizing factor in the general. Which is why Romney offered a negative critique of the president’s plan, promising a repeal-and-replace mechanism, along with a defense of his own system. “We have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids,” he told Perry. The compassionate conservative added, “I care about people.”
4. Rose Garden Romney
His barb at Perry aside, Romney continued to stay above the undercard fray. Romney isn’t out to prove his confrontational side with his primary foes. He saved the tough talk for the president. Plentiful it was, challenging Obama on the stimulus bill, health care, China policy, leadership savoir faire, and defense. By essentially disdaining charges at his current opponents and focusing on his putatively future rival, Romney simultaneously elevated himself and downgraded them. And sunk a few lances in Obama while he was at it.
5. Even Keel
Bloomberg TV moderator Julianna Goldman probed Romney with the prospect of a financial meltdown, European banks going bankrupt, and contagion infecting the U.S. She asked what he would do differently than the 2008 bailouts. Romney, flashing a bit of petulance, steered away from the sky-is-falling tone, exhibiting a rationality and sense of reality that eluded the man who ultimately defeated him in 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It's still a hypothetical as to what's going to precisely happen in the future. I'm not very good at being omniscient, but I can tell you this, that I am not going to have to call up Timothy Geithner and say, how does the economy work? Because I spent my life in the economy,” Romney said, pivoting back to his résumé. “I spent my entire career working in the private sector, starting businesses, helping turn around businesses, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. And I know how to make tough decisions and to gather the input from around the country to help make the important decisions that have to be made.”
1. You Can’t Go Home Again
Unlike his populist-pleasing answer on China, Romney’s divergence on bailouts isn’t likely to prove a general-election asset. During the same exchange with Goldman, Romney stumbled. Backing a Wall Street bailout works on, well, Wall Street, but the sledding is tougher elsewhere. Romney on Tuesday became entangled in a semi-endorsement of assistance for banks and a reiteration of his opposition to assistance for the auto industry. “Should they have used the funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler? No, that was the wrong source for that funding,” Romney said. “But this approach of saying, look, we're going to have to preserve our currency and maintain America – and our financial system is essential." Democrats pounced on the dichotomy, questioning Romney’s viability in Michigan – the state where his father was governor – for opposing the Detroit bailout.
2. The Old Health Care Question
Republicans are fiercely intent on making November 2012 a referendum and not a choice. If the difference between those two questions is elided, and the election becomes a choice between two candidates, Romney’s defense of the 2006 Massachusetts health care law loses its lustre for the GOP. Democrats have already spent an enormous amount of energy lashing Romney to Obama on health care. That’s an effort to sap Romney’s appeal among Republican primary voters, but it’s also a preemptive strike against Romney in a general election trying to draw a difference between himself and the president. If Romney gets that far and calls for repeal-and-replace, all Democrats have to do to drown him out is trot out the extensive litany of similarities between the two programs and, as occurred Tuesday, accounts of how the White House consulted the same Massachusetts law architects with whom Romney consulted.
3. Ripping off the Band-Aid
One answer Romney will likely have to tweak is his apparent opposition to extension of a payroll-tax cut. Shaving the budget deficit to halt surging debt is good politics. Saying the payroll-tax cut, an easily digestible component of the federal tax code, is a policy provision “like temporary little Band-Aids” is not good politics.