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October 05, 2012 10:55 AM No, Romney Did Not “Move to the Center” in Debate

By Ed Kilgore

Before it becomes a kind of Fact-Made-Fact-By-Repetition, I’d like to challenge the much-assumed idea that in the first presidential debate Mitt Romney “moved to the center” in a real, substantive way. This seems to be the conclusion of many Democrats, many in the MSM, and of those few Republicans who occasionally object to the endless rightward drift of the GOP.

Sure, his rhetoric sounded more moderate. But when you look at the details, nothing changed.

Was it heresy to say healthy markets require regulation? Not unless you are the sort of person who wonders if we ought to privatize sidewalks.

Did he back off on his tax-cut proposal? No, he’s always claimed his tax plan would not reduce the tax burden on the wealthy or boost the deficit. And he’s never accepted the $5 trillion price tag placed on his proposed rate cuts by the Tax Policy Center.

Was his solicitude for Medicare anything new? No, he’s been ranting about Obama’s “Medicare cuts” for ages, which is far less startling than hearing his running-mate do the same thing. Did Romney back down at all from his determination to dump Medicaid on the states with ratcheted-down funding (and yes, that’s what current-spending-plus-one-percent means unless you think medical inflation is suddenly vanishing), giving Republican governors eager to cut eligibility all the encouragement they need?

Was anyone moved by his alleged concern for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions? This is a lie he’s been repeating at least since the “repeal and replace” debate among Republicans that preceded the Supreme Court decision on ACA, and his own staff had to repudiate the idea that it represented anything new even as the “new Romney” talk was pervading the spin room.

How about his denial that he favors cuts in education funding? The whole key to the Romney/Ryan “vision” on non-defense discretionary spending is that nobody has to support specific cuts in anything: we’ll just have freezes and across-the-board cuts, and the dirty work will all be handled by the appropriators very late at night. I certainly didn’t hear him repudiate his “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge to permanently reduce federal spending to a level incompatible with maintenance of the New Deal/Great Society programs or the levels of non-defense discretionary spending we’ve seen since the Eisenhower administration.

Now Romney did mention his voucherization proposal for K-12 federal education spending, which is very immoderate if you consider it would channel federal funds directly into the pockets of Louisiana Bible Academy operators, but Obama let that go entirely.

And then most strikingly, there was Romney’s pious talk about how he’s not going to be a rigid partisan like Obama (who should have displayed a pair of worn-out shoes he demolished during the months he spent chasing Republicans around Capitol Hill trying to get them to talk to him about health reform or the stimulus legislation), because the very first thing he’ll do is eagerly sit down with Democrats to compromise with them about the nation’s problems.

If that sounded familiar to older folks, it’s because that was precisely the pitch George W. Bush made in 2000 to assuage worried Democrats and independents that the sponsorship of his candidacy by the entire conservative movement in full battle array should not alarm them. It turned out the Bush’s idea of “bipartisan compromise” was mostly to “do it my way,” but at least he was operating in a Republican Party where “compromise” was not synonymous with “treason.” Aside from all that, Mitt refused on Wednesday night to move an inch from his categorical opposition to any tax increase, or any defense spending reduction, as part of a solution to the deficit problem, and when you take those two items off the table, there’s no much left to “compromise” about, other than the exact distribution of pain to the lower- and middle-classes, is there?

If Mitt agrees as a good will gesture to preemptively oppose any effort by Congressional Republicans to enact the Ryan Budget on a straight party-line vote using budget reconciliation procedures (just as Bush did with his tax cuts after all the “bipartisanship” talk), then maybe we can take his “hands across the partisan divide” talk a bit more seriously. But at this point it’s just empty BS.

And then, above all, there’s the fact that thanks to the discussion framing of Jim Lehrer and the passivity of Barack Obama, a whole host of domestic issues on which Mitt can in no conceivable way be called a “moderate” never came up. Is it “moderate” to call for the complete destruction of Planned Parenthood, as Romney has done repeatedly? How about Mitt’s pledges to work for the abolition of abortion rights for the 99.9% of women whose pregnancies are not the result of rape or incest? In this day and age, is hard-core opposition to same-sex marriage or even civil unions “moderate?” Does Mitt’s status as the first Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater to suggest that labor unions have no legitimate place in the American economy “centrist?” Is there any way his own father would have approved of his “messages” on welfare policy?

Nossir. What we are seeing is the illusion created by a context-change wherein Mitt no longer has to pretend to be even more conservative than he’s been forced to be by his constant promises to the conservative movement. Dave Weigel is right to point out that the joy of the Right in watching Romney beat Barack Obama in the debates has given him a lot more maneuvering room than he’s had up until now. But he hasn’t really exercised it. He hasn’t make a single substantive change in his policy proposals that should discomfit Tea Folk. So let’s all calm down a bit in hailing “Moderate Mitt.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • David in NY on October 05, 2012 11:03 AM:

    If what Ed says is true, it's a little hard to understand why Obama wasn't countering some of these contentions. I mean, take medicare. Sure we've all there the trope that Obama is reducing it by $700+ million. (He's restricting payments to providers, not coverage of patients, as I understand it.) What was Obama's response to this predictable statement -- nada. Hard to understand.

  • Just Guessing on October 05, 2012 11:04 AM:

    Mitt is working his "heads we win, tails you loose". That's why he doesn't care about the 47%. In his mind they have lost already as there is no way for them to win.

  • potomacupstream on October 05, 2012 11:08 AM:

    It's a makeover. Mitt had himself a nice, full immersion makeover with cucumber slices over the eyes and the whole nine yards. But as we all know, makeovers don't last. Team Obama's mission, if they are up to it, is to painstakingly and explicitly connect the dots to make it clear that the "before" picture is how Romney will actually govern, and that pretty "after" image is just that - an elusive image and nothing more.

  • T2 on October 05, 2012 11:10 AM:

    but today, Mitt flip-flopped again, saying his 47% comments were "wrong". Of course he doubled down on them the day the video came out....but now they are "wrong". I'd love to give president Obama credit for making Mitt backtrack, but he didn't even bother to mention it in the debate. Now, if a more awake Obama brings it up in the next debate, Romney will just say "I've addressed that, and apologized- next question".
    We know the truth, however. Romney is lying when he says those comments were "wrong". He believes they were right.

  • sarah on October 05, 2012 11:11 AM:

    but the real question is... did mitt take notes into the debate with him (i.e. cheat)....

    here's a video clip of obama & romney taking their positions behind their lecterns at the debate. now what does mitt pull from his pocket and place on the lectern??? could it be... notes!? the video is done in a sensationalized way but.... mitt does pull something out of his pocket. i think it's probably a cheat sheet. it would explain mitt's performance....

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OAoA4aTkWM

    more at.... http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/10/04/1140213/-Did-Romney-Cheat-Vid-You-Decide

  • jjm on October 05, 2012 11:11 AM:

    To DavidinNY: Obama did respond. Mitt was so bent on distracting people he apparently 'got' you, too.

    An eloquent letter to the editor in today's NYT was telling. The writer said he only LISTENED to the debate, without watching it, and it was clear that Obama won on all points, making the better arguments.

  • stormskies on October 05, 2012 11:14 AM:

    This is also why one of the greatest enemies to our country is in fact that vast amount of the corporate media who simply does the bidding of pathological liar and buffoon Romney.

    They of course invent their 'story lines' and 'narratives' that simply serve the corporate/ repiglican purpose of issuing propaganda that then benefits the corporate/ repiglican agendas which start with increasing profit for them.

    Thus, we end up with a corporate media who was reduced to ejaculating by claiming Romeny to be the 'winner' of the debate even though he lies 27 times in 38 minutes. Think about that. And yet this, to the corporate media in the form of the corporate cum sluts like Gregory, Todd, Williams, and the rest of them constitutes being the 'winner' of the debate.

    This of course only confirms, yet again, just how fucking corrupt the corporate media has become, this fact alone being caused by none other than Jack Walsh when he become CEO of NBC news.

    This is why one of our greatest enemies in the nature of a vast amount of our corporate media.

  • Sparko on October 05, 2012 11:20 AM:

    Ed: what you say is substantively true but matters little. Romney has no plan other than to win. He is a man with no moral compass at all. Like Bush 2. He will exercise a ruthless agenda and mouth Rove's Antichrist teleprompting. He is a lump of money colored jello without any character or ethical standards. So, even if he completely changes what he says, the right wing is only looking for an empty suited enabler. That is why Red State has a party going on. They could care less about stated ideology. He'll do as they say like a trained monkey on command. The Manchurian Useful Idiot. They have lots of them.

  • emjayay on October 05, 2012 11:30 AM:

    sarah, as much as I hate to defend Romney on anything, in the slo-mo it seems obvious to me that he pulled a folded handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it on the podium. The object appears to be kind of thick and heavy and slightly irregular and it sags a bit, like a handkerchief not like file cards or paper. On the other hand he did some wierd shuffling of something on the podium just before stepping from behind it at the end of the debate.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on October 05, 2012 11:45 AM:

    @ sarah

    OMG. Thanks for sharing.

    That son-of-a-#itch cheated. On video. You can see how he was trying to be all smooth and coy flipping that paper out of his pocket. He even nodded and said, "Jim" once he got to the podium like a frat boy trying to be cool as he was getting away with something. Son-of-a-#itch.

    Dude. Romney. You made the #1 mistake of the post 24hr news media world. There is VIDEO for everyone to watch. Anybody with access to the internet. If Romney had a history of being a "straight talker", then the media and a lot of people might give this a pass. But Romney has a distinct reputation by now and this shenanigan fits neatly into a preexisting concept. The first 2012 presidential debate will now likely be remembered for a scandal rather than Romney's superior performance.

  • Mad_nVt on October 05, 2012 11:48 AM:

    Whoa Ed. This is an excellent post.

    You are really banging away at what is truly going on in the whole shapeshifting-Romney-mirrors campaign.

    Hit it hard !!!!

    Hit. It. Hard.

  • c u n d gulag on October 05, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Firing Big Bird ISN'T Centrist!

    Mitt's following zee orderz!

    The Koch Brother HATE puppets who aren't directly on their payroll!

  • T2 on October 05, 2012 11:58 AM:

    is there a rule saying the candidates cannot bring notes to the debate? Seems to me that if you are going to lie anyway, you don't need notes.

  • Dredd on October 05, 2012 12:01 PM:

    Very true, he moved to the mythological in substantial part.

  • LJL on October 05, 2012 12:02 PM:

    Romney will say anything to win. He's pretended to be everything over the years from someone left of Ted Kennedy in 1994, to a moderate governor, a shrill right wing conservative during the primaries and as of last Wednesday a progressive populist to the left of Obama. He's none of these things. He's a greedy,self-centered crooks clinging to a damaging religious fantasy of godhead.

  • Ray Waldren on October 05, 2012 12:05 PM:

    "because the very first thing heíll do is eagerly sit down with Democrats to compromise with them about the nationís problems" and when Mitt stated that as a Massachusetts Gov. 87% of the legislature was Democatic -- that would been a golden opportunity to suggest that Democrats are more interested in earning their paychecks and advancing the people's interest instead of acting like children and sitting on their hands like the Do Nothing House that Obama had to deal with.

  • LAC on October 05, 2012 12:14 PM:

    I'd also calm down about the passivity of Obama. First, wasting your time arguing every lie that robot utters would have eaten up any time you have discussing your vision; second, Romney got deprived of his "mea culpa" on the 47% comment, which he had to on his regular position at Hannity's knee on Faux News; third, an effective ads can be and are being run with "who is this guy?" theme. Romney, in his attempt to be "aggressive, be be aggressive" seem to be running his mouth all over and under his previous campaign positions. Most of the reaction I got from folks was the "WTF?" variety.

    Maybe it is a male thing, the read that loudness and talking over people is a debate winner. A lot of my female friends were completely turned off by it.

    BTW, I thought the jobs report was for the month. Are there actually folks out there trying to argue that the good report happened in a span of 48 hours because Romney is a winner winner chicken dinner at the debate? Jaysus...

  • Steve on October 05, 2012 12:33 PM:

    LAC, I have to agree with you, Mitt came across, to me, as an amphetamine addled used car salesman.

  • jim filyaw on October 05, 2012 12:36 PM:

    for the umpteenth time, b.s. is all the g.o.p. has going for it. its actual program, if honestly presented, would be about as popular as cholera. thus, romney has got to present himself as a composite of abe lincoln and dwight eisenhower, much in the manner dubya did. considering the rolling fiasco we endured from 2001-2009, and that romney is promising more of the same, what's shocking is that he is within 30 points of obama. mencken was on to something when he observed that no man ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the american public.

  • Dave on October 05, 2012 1:34 PM:

    The point on which I was most surprised that Obama did not attack Romney -- and perhaps the point on which Romney was most candid -- was when, in the discussion of his tax cut, Romney averred that it would be revenue-neutral "after you account for growth". That could have been Obama's there-you-go-again moment, and it would have been so easy: "I want to draw your attention to five important words that the governor just said. After you account for growth. What that means is trickle-down economics, cut taxes for the wealthy and hope that revenues will stay the same because incomes will go up. Republicans have been trying that for 30 years, and we know it doesn't work." One doesn't even have to deviate much from a professorial style to say this; when that slid by, I knew for sure that O's head was not in the game on Wednesday.

  • Sparko on October 05, 2012 1:42 PM:

    I think Obama's style may have been just right for all of the "off his game" folks. The crap that he said unrebutted is circling the solar system like a devastatingly foul bowel movement. Interesting that the debate has come down to Big Bird and Mormon meth now in the sensible media. MSNBC was "yeah he lied, but he was pathologically good and energetic." At the end of the day, he was unhinged, said things no one believes, and was mean to a senile PBS host. And Sesame Street.

  • lou on October 05, 2012 1:59 PM:

    On energy, the environment, use of public lands, and climate change, Romney has been nothing but right.

  • berttheclock on October 05, 2012 2:12 PM:

    I still believe had President Hillary Clinton been debating, she would have steamrolled Romney. Many in '08 wanted a purge of triangulation and the Clintons, so, '08 became a takeover from the Clintons. Even, Ed Kilgore has been blasted by several for having, formerly, worked for the DNC. The biggest problem was the Progressives so disliked the moderate Democrats in the Party, that they convinced themselves Obama was one of theirs, that is, a Progressive. He has, always, been a Liberal Republican, who craved the corporate law world after leaving university. Now, there have been some marvelous Liberal Republicans over the years, but, they have been purged from the current Jefferson Davis party and the far right and TPers will not tolerate working with any Liberal, whether Democrat or Republican. This party needed a real fighter with fire in his or her belly. Unfortunately, at this moment, the party is not being led by such.

  • Sparko on October 05, 2012 11:05 PM:

    LOL! Lou: "On energy, the environment, use of public lands, and climate change, Romney has been nothing but right." Ooookay. If you mean Romney has taken a crap in a national park sometime in his pampered and shiftless life--that could be defensible. If you mean he changes his energy, environment and global warming position to fit questioners, audiences, and the media, then there is no there there. Romney doesn't want to be right on those issues--that would make him a Democrat.

  • Lee A. Arnold on October 06, 2012 11:15 AM:

    It doesn't matter whether the move to the center was substantive or not. This election is not about facts or substance anymore. It is about "leadership qualities". Romney doesn't have better leadership qualities than Obama does, but that isn't the point either. The point is that this the only argument that Romney has got.

    Romney's strategy appears to be to try to keep Obama off-balance in the debates. The next way for Romney to do this would be to do something like introduce a major new policy idea, such as the old "negative income tax rate", a day or two BEFORE the next debate. Then he can say "this is my idea, this is my policy, this will help America" throughout the debate, and Obama the slow professor won't have studied enough to say anything about it. Then it hurts Obama's debate performance. It doesn't matter whether the new policy is a good idea or not. Try to understand that this election isn't about substance anymore.