In debates over Romney’s tax plan, health care, and Medicare, Obama didn’t prosecute his case nearly as powerfully as his opponent. At times the president seemed to think merely by appealing to voters’ deductive reasoning he’d make his point. “Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.” That’s a circuitous way to make a rather simple point. Obama did that again and again.
The president seemed thrown off by the fact that Mitt Romney was far more like the man who won the governorship in Massachusetts than the one who had won the Republican primary. In a debate about tax cuts, Romney consistently denied that his tax cuts would total $5 trillion. Shouldn’t Republicans boast about cutting taxes? What Romney meant is that his 20 percent across the board cut would be revenue neutral and not increase the deficit. That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t also be large tax cuts.
Romney also seemed to moderate his tone on regulations, particularly Dodd-Frank. Previously, his criticism of the bill had been much harsher, but in Denver on Wednesday night he seemed to say that its big problem wasn’t so much the regulations but the fact that the regulations were unclear.
Romney bragged about his Massachusetts health care plan, his ability to work with Democrats, accused Obama of giving a “kiss to New York banks,” and insisted that he wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich. "I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the—the revenues going to the government," Romney said, sounding unlike the self-described “severe conservative” of the previous 18 months. There might have been a time when this would have upset conservatives, but as GOP strategist Michael Murphy put it, conservatives “have tasted losing for the last couple of weeks.” They’re not going to complain now after a night that “tastes like winning.”
Obama’s point—and one he’ll hammer home in the coming days—was that Romney’s numbers don’t add up, if for no other reason than he hasn’t been specific. Romney is promising to cut taxes and increase defense spending while also balancing the budget. How does he get there? Romney doesn’t really say. If the president were on his game, he might have argued that Romney will make up the difference by squeezing the 47 percent he spoke of so derisively in that video. But the president didn’t draw that argument very clearly. The closest he came was during a discussion of block granting Medicare, when he said, “Now, you know, that may not seem like a big deal when it just is—you know, numbers on a sheet of paper, but if we’re talking about a family who’s got an autistic kid and is depending on that Medicaid, that’s a big problem. And governors are creative.” That’s hardly a line of attack.
The president’s team will immediately begin to hammer Romney on his lack of specificity. Romney promised the moon, but when you look at the details (or the lack of the same) there’s no way it can all add up. Once again, though, the president made his case by backing up into it. “I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good? Is—is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them? No, the—the reason is because when we reform Wall Street, when we tackle the problem of pre-existing conditions, then, you know, these are tough problems, and we’ve got to make choices. And the choices we’ve made have been ones that ultimately are benefiting middle-class families all across the country.”
This was Mitt Romney’s best night of the campaign. Now he has to sustain it. In the past, debates haven’t stuck with voters for long. There wasn’t one Romney moment that voters could take home and replay at work the next day. Romney seemed competent and in command, but how does that get passed around to other voters? Perhaps it’s enough that many voters who were looking at him for the first time didn’t see an indifferent millionaire. But his reputation for ideological malleability may help the Obama team argue that Romney is reinventing himself again. That will probably mean a pretty brutal round of charges about his ability to tell the truth. As the campaign heads deeper into October, the president is going to have to regroup, shake off the chill, and turn up the heat.
Watch: Political Kombat, the 2012 campaign told through video game fights.