Conservatives are so thrilled with Mitt Romney's victory in the first presidential debate Wednesday night that they're not noticing how moderate he sounded. While Romney's trajectory was downward, conservatives despaired that Romney wasn't effectively selling conservatism -- or maybe didn't understand conservatism at all. Way back before he was passed over in the 2008 Republican primary, a moderate Mitt was once the premise of his presidential candidacy and he's spent the last five years trying to prove his conservative bona fides. But if Romney's debate performance might start a comeback, his ideological impurity will be absolutely forgiven.
It's hard to overstate the level of conservative fist-pumping after the debate. "Tonight was a big win for Mitt Romney. He dominated the debate in every way. This wasn't even close," MSNBC's Joe Scarborough tweeted. He predicted big results: "Tonight's debate has changed the trajectory of this race." Less than a month ago, Scarborough's tweets were more grim. "The Romney campaign is not conservative," he said. "A real conservative would be winning now." What changed? Did Romney sound more like a "real conservative"? If you look at the transcript, no. Here are just a few of the warm-and-fuzzy moderate-sounding things Romney said in the debate:
- "I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy... I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families."
- "Number one, preexisting conditions are covered under my plan. Number two, young people are able to stay on their family plan." (These are two of the popular parts of unpopular Obamacare.)
- "I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you’re going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you’re going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best."
- "The primary responsibility for education is... at the state and local level. But the federal government also can play a very important role. And I agree with Secretary Arne Duncan... some ideas he’s put forward on Race to the Top, not all of them, but some of them I agree with and congratulate him for pursuing that."
It was only Tuesday when The New York Times' Ross Douthat complained that Romney had tacked to the center on several issues too late in the campaign, giving Obama cover for his positions without getting the benefit of looking like a moderate. What happened when Romney did so in the debate? According to at least one CNN poll, voters thought Romney won, and agreed with him more than Obama on the issues, a finding touted by the conservative Weekly Standard. The magazine, which has repeatedly accused Romney of not selling, not being fluent in, and not understanding conservatism, was thrilled with his performance. Bill Kristol said when Obama said it was "a terrific debate," he was right: "So it was. For Mitt Romney." Fred Barnes raved, "He never let an issue drop if he had more to say on it. He turned nearly every charge by Obama to his advantage. To put it simply, he fired every gun in his arsenal and, politically speaking, scored hits more often than not." Glenn Beck tweeted, "This is why this guy will win. This is who he is" and posted the photo at right. What is the lesson here? Everybody loves a winner.
You can see a short history of Romney's struggles to please the right in just four headlines from Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative blog RedState:
- "Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins," Erickson wrote in November 2011, saying Romney is "a guy who keeps selling out the very principles conservatives claim to hold dear." (This post appears to have been taken down, but it lives on the many sites that reposted it.)
- "Conservatives Agree: Romney’s Right," Erickson wrote September 18, referring to the video showing Romney telling donors that 47 percent of the country is dependent on government, so he can't get them to vote for him or "take personal responsibility" for their lives. The 47-percent-vs-53-percent line was a meme popularized by Erickson himself. It was one of many lines Romney cribbed from conservative blogs, instead of moving to the center as nearly everyone expected him to do.
- "Doom, Gloom, and Polls," Erickson wrote September 27, after Romney fell significantly in the polls, which also showed voters reacted very negatively to the 47 percent video.
- Thursday morning? Hope returns. "Bam! Slam! Pow! Crash! BOOM!" Erickson writes in his debate recap. He is very pleased with Romney's performance. "Mitt Romney did fantastic last night," Erickson writes.
It's true, the pundit consensus is nearly unanimous in declaring Romney the winner. But you'd expect a dedicated conservative like Erickson to take into account not just Romney's style, but what Romney said. Romney presented himself not as a crusader for the 53 percent, but as a moderate technocrat who wouldn't cut entitlements, who would make sure taxes in middle income Americans wouldn't go up and taxes on high income Americans wouldn't go down.