In the context of Mitt Romney's quest for the presidency, however, a debate win is a debate win, no matter what. If Romney had been perceived to have lost on Wednesday night, pundits would have been hammering even more nails into his campaign's coffin. Regardless of whatever fact-checks and recriminations may follow, then, Romney did what he needed to do. But the larger problem for his party and his ideology (or at least, what everyone thought his ideology was) is that his win came at the explicit cost of conservatism.
The past few months of campaigning had left one thing crystal clear: The severely conservative version of Mitt Romney stood very little chance of winning. Before his most recent upgrade, the previous release of Mitt Romney featured a pick of the arch-conservative Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential nominee. His signature economic policy was a $5 trillion tax cut that would somehow pay for itself. He, like his party, had been a crusader against regulation. He famously wrote off 47 percent of the American population as being lazy moochers, and then defended those comments. The severely conservative Romney wanted to repeal Obamacare because it was a massive government intrusion, and if that meant elimination of coverage for pre-existing conditions, well, too bad.
According to master prognosticator Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, severely conservative Romney had a roughly 13 percent chance of winning the election as of Wednesday night. So picture this: It's 34 days before the election, and you're Mitt Romney. The poll numbers are looking bleak, and unlike the conservative base, you know they're not skewed. Donors are on the verge of abandoning your race. You have one last best chance to impress the American people and win them over. So what do you do? Why, abandon conservatism, of course.
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Conservatism was a loser for Mitt Romney, so he decided to simply abandon it. He pretended that his tax cuts for the wealthy weren't really tax cuts at all. He walked away from his pick of the Medicare-destroying Paul Ryan and pretended to be a better defender of the socialized senior health care program than Barack Obama. He still claimed to want to repeal Obamacare, but only so that states could implement their own more finely tuned versions of the same overall regulatory structure. And speaking of regulatory structure, he claimed that Dodd-Frank was bad not because it regulated banks too much, but because it didn't do anything to address banks that were too big to fail. And on Thursday—as if just to make perfectly clear just how much he is pretending the entire rest of the campaign didn't happen—Romney is now saying that his remarks on the 47 percent were completely wrong, despite having defended their foundations no more than a few weeks prior.
While none of this explains away Obama's seemingly passive performance, it could go some of the way towards explaining why the president seemed to be caught flat-footed: If you had prepared to debate against someone who had consistently espoused particular positions and all of a sudden found yourself debating the same person who was saying exactly the opposite, you might seem ill-prepared as well. Now, many conservatives will likely overlook the substance of what Romney actually said at Wednesday's showdown in Denver and instead focus on his superior presence and his attacks on Obama. After all, the conservative base doesn't care what you say as long as you treat Obama with the fullest measure of contempt.
But none of this changes one simple fact: Romney's last-minute wholesale reinvention tour is nothing more than the last, desperate gasp of a candidate who knows that the conservatism he had to adopt to win the primary will get him absolutely nowhere this November. It is his last, greatest, Etch-a-Sketch: starting off the last month of the campaign by pretending on national television that none of the rest of the campaign ever happened, and hoping that the public is only paying attention just now and is too stupid to realize the difference.