Wednesday’s presidential debate promises sharp contrasts. One candidate wants to repeal Obamacare, one candidate invented it. One opposed the auto industry bailout, one takes credit for it. One doubts the scientific consensus about climate change, one believes in it. One wants to “voucherize” Medicare, one wants to save it. One dismisses nearly half of Americans as a bunch of moochers, and one claims to champion the struggling middle class.So begins the inimitable Eugene Robinson in this column in today's Washington Post.
It promises to be an epic clash: Mitt Romney vs. Mitt Romney. Oh, and President Obama will be there, too.
Robinson goes through some of Romney's contradictions in more detail. While acknowledging that debates are rarely all that significant he offers the following frame:
It seems to me that Romney’s prospects Wednesday night will depend heavily on his ability to explain why he has taken so many different positions on so many issues.Normally I find little with which to disagree in what Robinson offers. On this I am not so sure. After all, the Obama campaign originally contemplated focusing on Romney's flip-flops, but decided it was far more effective to focus instead on his extreme positions, an approach certain confirmed by the now infamous tape with its comments about the 47%. Still, there is a hint of Romney's flip-flopping in some of the team Obama advertising, as you can see below the fold
Here I am think about the ad labeled "Tires" -
While it does offer a contrast with Romney's current campaign focus on punishing China, the focus of the ad is that Romney is on the wrong side of the issue. Period.
And perhaps Obama might in the debate be prepared to point out some of Romney's many flip-flops over time. I suspect that the one area in which Romney will be himself prepared to address this is the Affordable Care Act, especially as he has already tried to confuse the issue on the campaign trail.
It seems far more effective to focus on how extreme Romney apparently really is, as the campaign has done, and any reference to his flips viewed through such a lens. Robinson does recognize it when in writing about the damage done by the 47% remarks he writes
We could see what’s at his core — and it wasn’t a pretty sight.Of course, there is the question of if there really is a "real" Romney, and Robinson goes there as well. Robinson suggests that if there is that person needs to show up in the debate given how well
voters can often look right through the persona and see the person.Robinson says that Romney's task is to reveal a coherent person, that is, if such a person exists. Perhaps. As the Obama campaign has tried to point out, apparently the real Romney is someone whose focus does not seem to include the ordinary Americans whose lives do not normally seem to intrude upon Romney's purview. The real damage of the comment about the 47% is that it seemed to cement an attitude about Romney that was already forming - that he neither understood nor cared about the lives and needs of ordinary Americans. Where Robinson is correct is that the constant changing of positions seems more like the actions of a person prepared to do anything to achieve a goal - as long as he does not get caught. That may be the real core.
Robinson does grasp that, and shows it in his final three sentences:
In the business world, where Romney had great success, winning means saying whatever you need to close the deal. A presidential campaign, though, is different. At some point you have to say what you really believe.The question is whether you do have to say what you really believe. We'd like to think that. As voters we'd like to believe we know for whom and what policies we are voting.
Here however I think I still disagree somewhat with the Pulitzer winner. For many politicians, even those running for President, and clearly for many of those advising their campaigns, the task is to get elected, and it is as equally justifiable to say whatever it takes to win the election as it is to say what you need to close a business deal. In that sense Romney is partially right in saying his business experience qualifies him - not to BE President to but run for President in that fashion.
The question has been whether that would be sufficient.
Romney was apparently not skilled enough to pull it off. What if he had been, what if he had not given so much ammunition to paint him as uncaring - on the housing crisis, on the auto bailout - would a campaign against him as the latest incarnation of John Kerry's being for something before he was against it have been successful?
I agree with the premise of Robinsons' title, that we cannot be sure which Romney will show up tomorrow night. Will it be the candidate who will say anything? Will it be someone with a coherent vision rooted in a real person?
In a sense it does not matter whether the threat to Romney is that he is viewed as inconsistent and lacking a core, or if it is as he has been painted, both ny his own comments and by the Obama campaign, as someone whose views on so many topics are simply unacceptable to most of the American electorate. Either way, he will fail to win the debate as he has failed to win over the American people in this election.