Mitt Romney performed an energetic and commanding imitation of Arnold Vinick in the first presidential debate. Vinick? He was a fictional character on The West Wing, played by Alan Alda, a true yet practical-minded conservative seeking to build coalitions and govern from the center. This is the Mitt Romney many favor, the Republican governor who worked well with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts, who eschews ideology to focus on what works.
At almost every turn in the 90 minutes at the University of Denver, Romney put President Obama on his heels. The president proved passive and ponderous, far from a happy warrior, seemingly greeting the occasion with disdain. He missed numerous openings to push back spiritedly against the Romney critique of his record, a record that deserves a crisp, aggressive defense.
The evening belonged to Romney, and no doubt made way for a second look from many voters in Ohio and elsewhere. And yet as sharp as Romney was, his performance hardly erased persistent questions about his candidacy. If anything, they deepened. Romney knows how to recast himself, having had much practice. In the debate, he moved distinctly toward the center. What about the “severely conservative” Romney he left behind?
This has been the dilemma for his campaign: What does the candidate really think? What would be the tilt of his presidency?
Romney pledged to sit down with Democrats, yet for months he has embraced policies of arch conservatives who show little sign of budging. He has rejected the idea of a deficit-reduction plan that would involve $1 in new revenue for every $10 in spending cuts. In the debate, he didn’t back away from the stance when given the chance.
At one point, Romney argued the new Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street weren’t tough enough on big banks. He spoke soothingly about the value of regulation. Yet he and other Republicans have talked sweepingly about its repeal. They have done the same about the Affordable Care Act, using the false description of a government takeover. Yet there was Romney reviving his fondness for his own reform plan in Massachusetts, the model for health-care reform, even suggesting he would take the principles nationwide.
When asked about his approach to spending cuts, Romney shared that he would ask “is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it,” adding “And if not, I’ll get rid of it.” The words worked tactically, signaling toughness toward China and spending. What do they mean, exactly? That Romney is looking to reduce federal spending by the roughly $1.2 trillion China holds in U.S. Treasuries?
Such was his elusiveness for much of the debate. As he tracked toward the center, the kind of president he would be became harder to define.