There are many reasons why Mitt Romney was almost universally hailed as the victor in last week’s presidential debate. President Barack Obama was sluggish, seemingly disengaged, and, at times, a little rhetorically punch-drunk. Romney came armed with a barrage of facts, an assertive rhetorical stance, and a willingness to go into the details of his policy positions. He criticized the president’s troubled economic record and presented his own vision. The contrast between Romney’s energetic, focused comments and Obama’s wandering and half-hearted ones was enough for many pundits on both the left and the right to declare Romney the winner.
But rhetorical style alone cannot explain Romney’s win. Over the past week, Romney has decisively turned his back on a faux-Randianism, one that says conservatism should be the deification of the wealthy few, the castigation of the poor and elderly as parasites, and the elevation of selfishness and pride over community and humility. Romney’s performance in Wednesday’s debate offers a striking counter to the sentiments of the infamous 47% video, which he repudiated on Thursday.
Rather than attacking Social Security and Medicare as instruments of financial slavery (as some in the faux-Randian right view them), Romney defended their value and pledged to make them sustainable. Dismissing the dogma that marginal tax cuts will always pay for themselves (something that even a tax-cut hawk like Paul Ryan has also implicitly rejected), Romney pledged that he will not support a tax-cut plan that adds to the deficit. Instead of arguing that government regulations always harm the economy, Romney stressed that regulations are essential for a market economy. Faced with accusations that his policies would lead to a Hobbesian state of nature, Romney cited his own record as governor of Massachusetts.
Many pundits have called Romney’s debate performance a pivot to the center, and there is some truth to this. However, many of the positions Romney advocated on behalf of during the debate are not exactly new. He defended Social Security against Rick Perry’s criticisms of it during the Republican primary, for instance, and he has often hinted at the importance of financial reform.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Romney did not seem to be surrendering the language of conservative principle in the first debate. If anything, he seemed to use the language of principle more persuasively than he had in the past. Romney’s remarks about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were some of his strongest expositions of the connections between daily government processes and founding national principles. The Romney campaign’s turn over the past week could be read not as the throwing over of principle in the pursuit of some muddy-minded middle but as an affirmation of specific principles and a more serious application of these principles to real-world circumstances. This purported “pivot” to the center could be less a retreat from conservatism and more a specific vision for conservatism.
The past decade or more — especially the past four years — has seen many of the nation’s economic gains captured by a small portion of the American population. This narrowing capture has contributed to a decade of economic stagnation. There are multiple responses to the current stagnation of the middle class and the forces that have fed into its economic decline (including trade imbalances, a preference for certain players in high finance, exploding health-care costs, and a dysfunctional regulatory regime). One response says that these trends should continue or escalate without any change in government intervention — let the “makers” prosper. Another response says that government should not directly treat these driving forces but should instead provide more subsidies to the working and middle classes in order to compensate for lost economic ground. This approach is to some extent that of the Obama administration. President Obama has done little on trade, his signature financial reform seems likely to have empowered a few select banks, and the middle class has continued to lose ground during his administration. Far more radically than President Bush, President Obama has argued for an expansion of government power and government spending in order to compensate for the effects of an economy that he has encouraged. This is exactly what Romney last week called “trickle-down government”: more and more direct payments dribbling down from a centralized government agency to make up for economic stagnation.
There is a third approach, though. This approach suggests that, rather than trying to correct these imbalances after the fact, the United States should reform its internal dynamics so that these imbalances are minimized; instead of trying to provide more subsidies to the bottom 90% after the fact, we can improve the market conditions for the bottom 90% so that they are less in need of direct government assistance. This approach seems in many respects to have been the underlying premise of much of Romney’s campaign since it launched in 2011. The noise of the campaign had muffled this message over the past months, but, now, at last, it has returned.