The weekend after the first presidential debate, my husband and I couldn’t stop replaying and critiquing what had happened in that first meeting of the candidates. Sobered by President Barack Obama’s disappointing performance, we were clear on at least one thing—the race is far from over.
But we couldn’t help but notice something else. Throughout the Republican primary season, we’d watched as Gov, Mitt Romney persistently veered hard to the politically extreme right, choosing to ignore undecided independent voters and more moderate voices in his own party.
It seemed strange coming from a politician who used to be pro-choice, who used to be pro-marriage equality, who used to be a forward thinker on healthcare. But if that’s what it took to win the nomination of his increasingly fractured Republican Party, then that’s what candidate Romney would do.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that, during his first debate against the President, 'Romney the Moderate' was back, swooping in to confuse us all. His admittedly strong performance aggressively challenging Obama won him the debate on style points alone, and it almost helped deflect attention from the position changes he was suddenly spouting. But could viewers tell the difference between ‘Mitt the Moderate’ and ‘Romney the Right-winger’?
Tactically, by flashing signs of the fiscally-conservative, socially-moderate GOP’er he once was, Romney was sending a message to those independent, undecided voters that could have been pretty much in the bag for the Republican nominee earlier on. Watching the debate, many of them likely sat up and listened a lot harder, thinking, “Could he still be ‘our’ guy too?”
In the days after that first debate, it became clearer that Romney had started erasing any memory of his preceding campaign stumbles, and he made strong headway in correcting the course of downward trending polls. He was helped along by debate answers that might not have been so factually truthful but sure sounded good to moderate Republicans hoping to hear a less extreme viewpoint. Fact-checking proved that Romney played loose with some of his statements; to be fair, the bi-partisan FactCheck.org found fault with both presidential candidates on things they asserted.
But the Romney we saw at the debate and since then is much different than the Romney we’d seen before. On questions about tax cuts we heard him say pre-debate that he’ll cut taxes across the board—including for the top one percent—but on debate night itself he said he’ll let top wage earners pay their fair share. He’s criticized the President’s healthcare plan, yet touted his own, almost identical one from his years as Governor of Massachusetts.
Romney made other statements that were designed to appeal to more moderate voters, but were not as truthful as the candidate would have you believe. He asserted his supposed support of those with pre-existing medical conditions—in truth, not as many people in that category would be able to keep their health coverage under a Romney plan as he’d like voters to believe. Similarly he said he’d make sure grants for education would be protected, and education would be a high-focus priority in a Romney administration—this, from the guy who’d previously said he’d eliminate the Department of Education. He even agreed that business needed government regulation!
Since then, Romney has similarly shown two sides on the issue of women’s healthcare and reproductive rights. One minute he asserted his perhaps less heavy-handed approach to choice: “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Doublespeak and obfuscation? Shortly thereafter his campaign backtracked and reaffirmed Romney’s strong opposition to safe and legal abortion, except in rare exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger. Even his vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan—with his own, more extreme views on abortion—in his own debate appearance, reminded those of us who are pro-choice of Romney’s true intent to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But Romney is hoping the undecided voters are hooked, or at least have considered taking the bait. Might he really be the guy who can reach across the aisle to work with members of the opposing party? Could he be a President who rebuilds the economy and improves healthcare (even for women!) all the while strengthening our underperforming educational system?
I wouldn’t bet on it, and I’m hoping the President gets a little more fire in his belly to show the electorate—especially the undecided voters—that Romney is really a candidate who says only what he thinks they want to hear, and who won’t be able to keep the promises he makes to both sides of his own party.
Without knowing if it will be ‘Mitt the Moderate’ or ‘Romney the Right-winger’ on any given day of the remaining three weeks of the campaign, let’s hope everyone pays attention to which Mitt Romney they hear, knowing full well that we don’t really know which Mitt Romney we’d get should he win.