DENVER – Sen. Orrin Hatch tried to be nice, he really did. The senator took the Crowne Plaza stage at the post-debate Conservative Political Action Conference, and asked his audience to indulge one backhanded compliment of President Barack Obama.
“The president is a charming man, no question,” said Hatch. “But, he looked on the defensive …”
Hearty boos and ha-ha-has filled the room. “No, wait, wait!” said Hatch. “Well, let me put it another way.”
“He’s a very likeable man, but let me just say …”
“Well, let me put it another way. The president’s a very smart guy, no question …”
“What you saw last night is that the president’s a very smart guy as long as he’s using teleprompters.”
That did it. Hatch’s audience practically levitated with glee—one of three references to teleprompters that they’d hear from three politicians in 45 minutes. Sen. Marco Rubio arrived onstage, saw a teleprompter, and stagily pushed it aside. “What a difference 90 minutes without a teleprompter makes!” said former Rep. Artur Davis, an old Obama ally who lost a Democratic primary for governor in Alabama in 2010 and slowly turned into a Republican. “No teleprompter, just two men and their thoughts. “
Finally, finally, after four long years, somebody had proved that Barack Obama was a talking point wrapped up in a suit. For the first time, the Republican base had a reason to love Mitt Romney. Not tolerate. Not mutter about how he “wasn’t my first choice.” Today, they loved the guy like he’d stopped to fix their car then paid off their mortgages.
Here’s the odd thing: He did it by being the Mitt Romney that conservatives always said they didn’t like. It was the first time in 10 years he’d had to debate a Democrat, not some conservative who could run to his right. So he snuck around the president and flanked him from the left.
“There will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” said Romney, as he discussed plans to cut taxes and add to the deficit. “I want to underline that: no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” On health care, the issue that dragged out the primaries more than any other, Romney took full ownership of the Massachusetts mandate. “I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together,” he explained. And he promised to restore $716 billion of funding to Medicare—four times.
Did President Obama expect to meet this version of Mitt Romney? The stiff who’d told a February CPAC that he’d been a “severely conservative” governor was replaced by the list-making guy who actually won in Massachusetts. Up to now, every time Romney has walked off the reservation—when an aide has failed to say that President Romney would burn Obamacare page by page—conservatives have erupted. And then Romney humiliated Obama in a debate. All is forgiven.
“Honestly, Mitt Romney could say anything and I’d say ‘Right on!’ ” said Sister Mary Nelle, a Catholic nun from Lakewood, Col. Back in February she had caucused for Newt Gingrich, against Romney; she wore a Rick Santorum sticker, honoring the guy who’d beaten Romney in those caucuses. “But I would take almost any alternative to the current officeholder.”
This was what Republicans were talking about months ago when they nominated Romney. He was “electable.” When they admitted that to exit pollsters, they were expecting a candidate who came off as moderate to win where, say, Rick Santorum couldn’t.
“I was hearing a little bit of angst last night,” said Larry O’Connor, a radio host and editor of Breitbart.tv. “Like, ‘Hang on, did Romney just say that regulation was necessary?’ But people have moved off of that today.”
Thus, the teleprompter jokes. Conservatives have always looked at Barack Obama as a flimsy creation of a biased media. The day before the debate, the conservative media obsessed over a 2007 video of the president speaking at a historically black college and talking about the role of race in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. That speech had been covered by the “drive-by media,” as Rush Limbaugh calls it. But according to conservatives, the media had ignored Obama’s racialism in order to protect him. They pass around clips of Obama saying he’s visited “57 states” and mangling health care answers to point out that the guy is useless without a teleprompter. The day after the debate, they thanked Romney for proving them right.
“I was surprised at how poorly the president did,” said Richard Land, head of the social conservative Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, after wrapping up a panel on the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. “I was a little stunned. He looked like a deer in the headlights.” Romney had been conservative enough for him. “He was attempting to be moderate in tone, but he was talking about defunding PBS, defunding Obamacare.”
But why did the president underperform? Land pointed at my chest as he answered. “The guy lives in cocoon of yes-men,” he said. “When he goes into one of his infrequent press conferences, people in your profession might as well bow down, because they never ask him tough questions.” A CPAC-goer chimed in—“Yes! Yes!”—then walked on.
It didn’t matter if Romney had sounded a few moderate notes. He exposed Barack Obama. For that, for the first time, all Republicans were proud of their nominee. Shortly after Rubio spoke, four of Romney’s sons appeared on the CPAC stage. The eldest, Tagg Romney, announced that another family member had arrived. Out came Mitt Romney, getting a 50-second long standing ovation.
“Last night, I thought, was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country,” said Romney.
As Romney spoke, not a single person sat down. The teleprompters stayed on the stage. He ignored them.