One of the reasons Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election is that he didn’t allow President Obama to brand him as a rich and evil Republican who discounts 47 percent of the nation. Instead, Romney presented himself, and his philosophy, in a positive light.
It is predictable that liberals will seek to rationalize why Obama lost. They will first blame moderator Jim Lehrer for what some have described as a laissez-faire style. They will next argue that Romney won by lying. Eventually, though, they will get around to accusing Romney of changing his positions — of being a political chameleon who posed as a moderate during the debate.
I haven’t heard any complaints from conservatives yet, but there may be a few who will also buy into this theory. In the wake of the George W. Bush-era, some Republicans have conflated sounding sane with selling out. But the truth is that effective conservative communicators — from Reagan to Rubio — have flourished by presenting conservatism as the compassionate philosophy that it is.
And that’s just what Romney did Wednesday night.
It’s hard to accuse a candidate of pandering or “squsihing out” when he tells Jim Lehrer he wants to cut funding to PBS. This is not to say that Romney didn’t tack to the center on some issues (he essentially took David Brooks‘ advice, and “owned” RomneyCare — framing it in as positive a light as possible). But in general, Romney’s shift had more to do with style than with policy. He simply presented conservatism in a temperamentally conservative (read: not radical!) manner that would appeal to most mainstream Americans.
Empathy, of course, is not the exclusive property of liberalism — and a conservative demonstrating that attribute should not be assumed to have somehow tacked to the center. Ronald Reagan was a master at framing conservative arguments in populist, common sense language. And on Wednesday night, Romney took a page from The Gipper.
“Regulation is essential,” Romney said early on (stating the obvious.) “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.”This qualifies as obvious common sense. But it was important for Romney to say, because it undermines the false impression that conservatives are either in the pocket of big business — or are closet anarchists. Similarly, on tax cuts, Romney pushed back at the notion that he wanted to line the pockets of the rich, correctly noting his plan would also “lower deductions and credits and exemptions….”
As Daniel Foster wrote, Romney “cut through the image of him as an unthinking, out-of-touch plutocrat and got personal, telling stories about voters he’s met on the trail.” For the first time I can recall, Romney used personal stories effectively to make his points. Here’s an example:
Ann yesterday was a rally in Denver, and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He’s lost his most recent job, and we’ve now just lost our home. Can you help us?
And the answer is yes, we can help, but it’s going to take a different path, not the one we’ve been on, not the one the president describes as a top-down, cut taxes for the rich. That’s not what I’m going to do.
Mitt Romney didn’t so much change positions as he changed sales techniques. I have rarely seen a politician make such a dramatic improvement, in terms of eloquence and rhetorical persuasiveness. It was a very good night.