He wasn’t the only one who noticed. The Weekly Standard reporter Stephen Hayes said the Romney campaign has reverted to the pre-Ryan moment. Bill Kristol also called for more brio. But now no one is making too big a fuss because Romney’s moderate Massachusetts strategy has improved Romney’s standing. It’s conventional Republican wisdom that Romney succeeded in the first debate because voters—particularly married women voters—found him to be a likeable, moderate fellow. The campaign has been running with this ever since. Previously Romney had been downplaying his conservative positions. Now he is either running away, or, in some cases—like his position on legislation to allow companies to deny employees contraception coverage—actively changing them to a more moderate posture. (If the election were held on New Year’s Day, he might come out for Obamacare.)
This leads to some head spinning conversations with Romney strategists and surrogates. More than once they have boasted that what people are now seeing is the true Romney. They remind you that their candidate had to withstand all of those accusations that he was “Moderate Mitt” during the primary season. That’s proof that he’s always been the far more reasonable, centered candidate. What makes you reach for the Dramamine is that when Romney was being called “Moderate Mitt” he and his campaign were steadfastly rebutting the label. It was about this time that Romney started calling himself “severely conservative.”
In the end, all of this shape-shifting leads to confusion about what Mitt Romney will govern. Will it be the fellow who was trying to court conservatives in the primaries or the one who is appealing to moderates now? Or, will he be pragmatic, calculating his political positions based on the composition of the Congress and the forces in the larger electorate he’ll still have to appeal to once he’s in office?
Romney has been sounding notes of bipartisanship since the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. The election is all about coming together with Democrats, he says. “I’ve got to make sure and reach across the aisle,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop. “I gotta find, I know there are good Democrats who love America just like we do. I’m going to reach across the aisle to them and work together, put the interests of the people ahead of the politicians. We’ve gotta do this. It’s too critical a time. We can’t change course unless we change the way Washington is working.” It’s another shift in tone and it appears to be working—at least with many of the 200 undecided voters I’ve been corresponding with. It doesn’t seem to be costing Gov. Romney support with conservatives who are banking he’ll return to the fold when he’s in office.
Romney’s new spirit of bipartisanship actually seems in keeping with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies, our most recent example of a big name Republican saying good things about the other side. Christie has been sharing the stage and praising President Obama for his fast response to Hurricane Sandy. It is completely in keeping with Christie’s reputation for calling it as he sees it—even if it might upset Republicans. That’s what works for Christie, as he recently told Esquire:
I caught a guy in high school who went on to play pro ball. His father was this quiet retired Marine drill sergeant. This kid threw a ninety-four-, ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball. But he also had a good curveball. Freshman year one game, we made a guy look silly on two curveballs in a row — strike one, strike two. I called a third curveball. The kid hit it about 350 feet. That night I went to my friend's house for dinner. And his father said to me in his quiet way, "Chris, let me ask you something. That third curveball: I couldn't see from where I was standing. Did you call it or did Scott shake you off to the curveball?" And I said, "No, I called it." And he put his fork down on his plate — I can close my eyes and still see this guy doing this — and he said to me, "Don't ever do that again.”
If you're gonna get beat, get beat on your best pitch.
Mitt Romney has always seemed awkward playing the severe conservative. It’s not his best stuff. He might lose this thing—the polls in the battleground states aren’t looking good—but since Oct. 3 he’s been going with his best pitch. He’s no longer taking advice from the Scott Walkers of the world. He is listening to the more pragmatic Chris Christies. If Romney loses, those will be the battle lines for the next GOP contest.
Watch the main event of Political Kombat, Romney vs. Obama: