As I predicted, the papers love a good horse race and have been dying to start the Romney rebound story. It is now well under way, with “Romney dominates glum president” on page 2 of the Financial Times (FT), “Romney Presses Edge After Obama Stumbles” on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and “Campaign Gains a New Intensity in Debate’s Wake” on the front page of the New York Times (NYT). The consensus is that we now have a competitive race again, and reporters could not be happier.
I read the debate transcript again last night and realized something I didn’t mention enough yesterday—–Governor Romney of Massachusetts was back! The severe conservative of the Republican primaries did not show up; instead, we had a moderate, center-right, successful governor who embraced his own health-care reform plan, bragged of working with Democrats, stated categorically there would be no effective tax cut for the wealthy, and said that regulation was necessary and government had a role to play. One wonders what Paul Ryan thought of all that, not to mention all of the Republican primary voters.
I have to say, as a citizen, I am encouraged by the return of Governor Romney. What the country needs is a commitment to principled government, which requires, first of all, an admission that government has a role to play and, second, a commitment to principled negotiation and compromise with the loyal opposition. Romney’s move to the center is a genuinely encouraging development for the country as a whole and also for the Republican party—if it can be sustained.
It is also—and not accidentally—good politics. We are now in the final stretch, where the candidates are fighting over the people who are not already persuaded—in other words, the center vote. People on the left will not be voting for Romney, any more than people on the right will pull the lever for Obama. The candidates need to appeal to the people in the middle.
This is just what Romney successfully did by embracing his identity as a Massachusetts moderate. The Obama campaign has—very successfully—done its best to identify Romney as an out-of-touch hyper-rich ideologue. By redefining himself in front of millions of viewers as a successful governor—who worked successfully with Massachusetts Democrats, for goodness’ sake—Romney has made that narrative a much tougher sell to independent voters. There are several articles on this today, including on page 2 of the FT and onpage A12 of the NYT, but my favorite take on it is David Brooks’ op-ed column, “Moderate Mitt Returns!” (NYT, p. A25).
I have to say that if Romney means it, and if he can continue to campaign and even potentially govern this way, the Romney rebound stories may be on track. At the very least, by forcing the debate to real issues and undermining the narrative the Obama campaign has constructed, Romney has done the electorate as a whole—and his own campaign—a real service. I hope very much that the governor is back for good because that will be good, not only for politics, but also for governance.