Barack Obama couldn’t be bothered to notice—he seemed to think he was at a White House news conference, not a debate—but while the president was acting so veddy, veddy presidential on Wednesday night, his challenger, Mitt Romney, decisively made his long-anticipated leap to the center. And if the GOP nominee stays there, he may yet have a chance to take Obama’s job away from him.
Out on the stump, Obama and his team probably would never have let Romney get away with his performance at the first presidential debate. No doubt, the Obama-ites would have instantly labeled him a flip-flopper yet again and trotted out all his campaign’s extreme positions on the budget and tax cuts, tying it up neatly with a reissue of Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remark.
But Romney got away with it in Denver. It’s not that the president didn’t see what his challenger was up to. At several points, the GOP candidate, playing a theme that he and his campaign had obviously agreed upon beforehand, made the case that the Romney who has spent the last 18 months pandering to the party’s government-slashing right wing was, once again, the bipartisan Gov. Romney of Massachusetts—that he was ready to fund education and job-training programs and bring Democrats and Republicans together on “Day One ... as we did in my state.”
Obama responded in his wry way: “Well, first of all, I think Governor Romney’s going to have a busy first day, because he’s also going to repeal ‘Obamacare,’ which will not be very popular among Democrats as you’re sitting down with them.”
But it was too subtle, too civilized. Romney was far too fierce and on his game, while Obama was excessively polite and even seemingly indifferent in his responses. Both candidates twisted the facts a bit, but that didn’t matter. Romney managed to avoid any gaffes that suggested he didn’t know real America—the $10,000-bet kind of stuff. Above all, Obama permitted him to continue a stealth move toward moderation that Romney has hinted at in recent weeks, suggesting that big banks are bad, that he won’t reduce taxes on the rich after all, and that he’s proud that Massachusetts manages to provide health care coverage for all its citizens (thanks to the same individual mandate that right-wing Romney had inveighed against for the previous year).
Hence, we heard the same candidate whose economic plan declares that “a Romney administration will act swiftly to tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy” deliver up an eminently reasonable, centrist position in Denver in which he said no fewer than six times in one answer that he actually likes regulation.
Romney was even effective in neutralizing the fallout from the 47 percent comment (which Obama, startlingly, failed to bring up) by recasting his tax plan as a deliverance for beleaguered small businesses. While Obama tepidly sought to make the same case that Bill Clinton had so powerfully delivered at the Democratic convention in Charlotte—that Romney’s “math” didn’t add up—Romney simply kept repeating that he’d never raise taxes on the middle class. The GOP candidate still wasn’t delivering on specifics—which loopholes he’d actually close—but he seemed to understand far better than the president that this was political theater, not a policy session.
Romney also had some obviously well-practiced answers ready to powerfully make a case highlighting the middle-class and job-producing dimensions of his plans. “It’s not just Donald Trump you’re taxing. It’s all those businesses that employ one-quarter of the workers in America; these small businesses that are taxed as individuals,” he said. “And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people. For me, this is about jobs.”
In his characteristic way, Obama was often sharp and funny. “For 18 months, he’s been running on this tax plan,” he said of Romney at the outset. “And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is, ‘Never mind.’ ” At another point, Romney sought to win over seniors by assuaging them about his plans to voucherize Medicare, saying they won’t be affected: “So if you’re 60 or around 60 or older, you don’t need to listen any further.” Obama retorted,“If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen.”
But, in the end, Romney’s zingers were zingier than Obama’s. The president was simply too many steps behind, languidly seeking to admonish Romney for shifting position but mostly on the defensive as the GOP candidate attacked him frontally. “You’ve been president four years. You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits,” Romney said at one point. “We’ve had this discussion before,” Obama said dismissively.
If he wants to win, Obama can’t stop doing what his campaign has done so effectively: hammering away at the issue that has dogged the GOP candidate for so long. Which Romney is the country likely to get? Is it the pragmatist from Massachusetts, or the party panderer? Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer to give “the argument against repeal” of Obamacare, the president could have attacked Romney’s flight from his own plan in Massachusetts. Instead, Obama dove back into his own private wonkland, apparently infatuated with the details of all he thinks he’s achieved in three years: “We’re essentially setting up a group plan that allows you to benefit from group rates that are typically 18 percent lower … ”
Presidential small ball is not going to work, not in an election in which Obama’s record still has so many vulnerabilities. Romney managed to hit at most of them on Wednesday. Obama acted as if the debate didn’t really matter, while Romney was clearly playing to win big. If the Republican nominee continues to do that by appealing to the center—and, in effect, to the entire country—he may in fact transform the race.
Originally appeared in print as Middle March
This article appears in the October 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.