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.