There has been more than enough Romney versus Republicans this year, but single-party debates tend toward extremism and competitive agreement. They force candidates to separate themselves from the pack with “personal character” or trivial one-ups-manship. Missing are thoughtful debates presenting both sides of issues which bisect public opinion.
When did Romney debate Democrats? The first time he faced a Democrat in a major election was in his senatorial campaign against Ted Kennedy in 1994. Romney was running a race he couldn’t win as a Republican in Massachusetts against a five-term senator who also happened to be Ted Kennedy. But this was 18 years ago, before Romney’s Olympics and Governorship. Romney has evolved substantially as a person and as a candidate, so it’s best we look elsewhere for insight. The only other time Romney sought major office against a Democrat was when he defeated Shannon O’Brien for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002. The footage of Romney’s most recent debate against a Democrat teaches us a lot about the man and the candidate.
The most important thing liberals need to remember about Mitt Romney is that he is too easily dismissed as impersonal and awkward. And he can be, in clips often circulated on MSNBC and the Daily Show. Against O’Brien, his jokes are as corny as ever : “If a tax increase is proposed by them, I don’t know what I’ll do; ride up and down the state screaming: ‘The taxes are coming, the taxes are coming.’” But when he hits a groove, he can also be a very powerful speaker and inspire great confidence. Talking about personal values or his family, Romney shows us a more genuine side. We get a tiny glimpse when his non-regional accent drops at a touching moment in the debate with O’Brien. (Starting at 12:30, but listen for 12:58-13:00) More recently his heartfelt RNC acceptance speech may have been his best oration yet. Take the time; you might be surprised.
Romney also loves his numbers, a businessman more than a politician. When he explains his budget plans, that acumen comes through (19:95 in the link to the O’Brien debate above.) Unfortunately, both the arithmetic and the politics of the budget are harder to balance in Washington than in Boston. There aren’t any specific answers about balancing the short-term-budget that are going to win Romney votes in swing states, short of an excise on living near the coast, the Gulf of Mexico excluded.
The Romney campaign knows this: its own fiscal plan provides more than a page on tax cuts but just two sentences on cutting spending. Obama sidesteps the same problem by letting tomorrow’s voters bear the cost. This is debatable economics, but shrewd politics. There will be questions about how Romney can balance the budget, cut taxes, and not lay a large portion of the electorate off. He needs to dodge these, not answer them, so his inner accountant won’t help.
Another of Romney’s strengths is being badgered. The debate with O’Brien is shadowed by its less-than-impartial moderation by the late Tim Russert of Meet the Press fame. When O’Brien and Russert attack him and cut him off, Romney generally keeps his cool. But Obama doesn’t need be too aggressive here; Romney does. The Washington Post predicts Obama, ahead and composed as he was 4 years ago, will win by playing good defense. And no interrupting – short of a Kanye appearance, Romney will get his chance to finish.
Romney’s last opponent, Shannon O’Brien, also isn’t quite Obama at the podium. She lets slip smug phrases like “abandoned property laws – you don’t need to know what that is.” She is aggressive and spends more time accusing Romney of lying than of building her own case. Obama, despite his Wednesday performance, is a tougher opponent – even the Romney campaign admits it.
Romney is also good with a prepared answer. He can hammer refined defenses to tough questions. (In the above debate, discussion starts with the death penalty and moves along to abortion.) But what about surprises? If the Obama team has a “gotcha” question, there’s a good chance they’ll save it for primetime TV.
Russert does catch Romney in a trademark flip-flop-in-mouth moment, baiting him first to criticize old dogs in the State House and then asking how he plans to work alongside them having heard his remarks. (Starting at 27:10) Romney then backpeddles as we’ve seen him do countless times this election cycle. (Not that Obama isn’t without his evolutions.)
But all this isn’t because Romney doesn’t actually like the people he’s attacking; it’s because some think he needs to seem tougher. When he’s in the square-jaw-Republican zone, Romney is ready to fire shots wherever the closest person is pointing. It seems only when the smoke has cleared does he realize that his targets – the British, the Russians, the 47% - might actually hear what he’s said about them.
Mitt Romney has some great strengths as a speaker and as a candidate. He’s the family man who believes in the power of markets and small government to improve lives across all tax brackets. He’s the Republican who won the Massachusetts State House by 5 points. He’s the businessman who gave everyone in his state health care and supported a public school system with excellent results. This is what footage from a decade ago seems to show.
The Mitt we all saw Wednesday night seems to have learned from his early debate appearances. Whether he can keep it up is another story.