As usual, David Brooks of the New York Times clarifies something for me: why Romney did do so well in the debate Wednesday, and why Obama did so poorly.
Obama seemed unprepared for the debate, whereas Romney seemed to be remarkably prepared? Why? Was Obama just too busy to get ready sufficiently? Was John Kerry a bad choice to play Romney in the practice debates with Obama? Or was it something else. I think it was something else.
Obama had prepared to debate the Tea Party version of Mitt Romney, that is, the version of Romney that had been campaigning all year in order to get the Republican nomination. He was prepared to go up against the Libertarian/Evangelical wing of the Republican Party. But he ran into a Rockefeller Republican Romney instead in the debate.
He was ready to go after the Tea Party/Paul Ryan/Libertarian extremist that Romney had campaigned as. He got a remarkably reasonable and persuasive man on the stage with him instead. He just didn't know what to do. Not because he failed in some way to react intelligently, but because the things that Romney was saying, with such reasonable and persuasive language, were actually the things that any reasonable non-ideological person would say as well, including Obama himself. He couldn't counter Romney's words because they were words that made sense to Obama himself.
This Romney believes in regulation as a necessary part of free markets (an obvious truth denied by the Ayn Rand Libertarian extremists). This Romney says the rich will not have their taxes reduced (an obvious need denied by Ayn Rand Libertarian extremists). This Romney says the government needs to help the elderly and disabled with their challenges in life (an obvious and necessary government function denied by the Ayn Rand Libertarian extremists). This Romney praised government job training programs and support for education (an obvious and necessary government function denied by Ayn Rand Libertarian extremists). This Romney pledges to work across the isle with Democrats looking for common ground (a total repudiation of the last four years of Tea Party/Libertarian/Evangelical Republican orthodoxy).
This Romney is a center-right Republican, a Rockefeller moderate, a conservative who believes in the necessary functions of the government and one who believes that conservative approaches can make the government work better, one who looks to rein in the excessive spending enthusiasms of liberals while keeping and improving the needed functions of government.
The etch-a-sketch Romney has emerged. He shook up his message and came up with what is needed to get elected to the presidency. Just like he tailored his message to the extremist Republicans while he was running for the nomination.
I don't know who the real Romney is. David Brooks thinks we are finally seeing the real Romney, the Romney he has been writing about for the last year. It could be that this Romney is just fooling us, that he is truly an Ayn Rand social Darwinist after all. But I don't think so.
So, even though this Romney is exactly who I want the Republican nominee to be, I have grave doubts that he will be able to deliver as promised.
He could just be doing what he always does - exhaustively examining the evidence and coming up with a course of action that responds to the data and still give him what he wants - the presidency. That is, it could be that he doesn't believe any of what he said last night, he is just saying what he has to say to close the deal. So it could be that he is a man without a center, only ambition. Could be.
Or, he could really want to run the country like a sensible center-right conservative president, but won't be able to pull it off because all of the supporting Republican cabinet and staff and Senators and Congresspeople that come along with the Republican Party are the same people that brought us over-deregulation, over-militarization, over-Puritanical hits from Republican administrations of the past. So, this could be a man who won't be able to change his party's stripes even if he tries. Could be.
Or, he could lead his Republican Party from the wilderness of extremism back into the mainstream and save not only his party but the country from plunging headfirst over the cliff into extremist oblivion. Could he?
Romney has a big task ahead of him, to my mind, and that is to prove to me that he is not just playing word games and keeping the extremist right wing policies he has been campaigning on all year. Where is the real Romney?
Obama has a big task as well. It is up to Obama to adjust and run against this new Romney. Just calling him a liar or a hypocrite won't get the job done. He has changed his stripes, at least at the rhetorical level. As David Brooks so clearly pointed out in his excellent article:
"He'll have to develop a positive passion for something he actually wants to do. I gave Obama better reviews than most pundits Wednesday night, but his closing statement was as bad as any I've heard. If he can't come up with a two-minute argument for why he should be president again, the former Mr. Audacity might still lose to the former Mr. Right Winger."
It's time for President Obama to give us his vision for America, to inspire us all, to create his vision and to show us that he is our leader into that future. So far, he's just been the Other Guy, the Not-a-Tea-Party-Nut-Case guy. That might not cut it anymore. Where is Obama the leader?