For a year, Mitt Romney has been trying to pretend he’s Ronald Reagan. Wednesday night he did something much smarter: He acted like George W. Bush.
I mean the George W. Bush of 2000. In 2000, Bush’s strategists made a savvy calculation. They realized that 20 years after Reagan’s election, ordinary Americans no longer saw government as the problem. It wasn’t that they suddenly loved Washington, but given the frightening rise in economic insecurity, they wanted it to cushion some of the blow. Recognizing that, Bush ran less as Reagan than as Eisenhower. Instead of challenging the basic axioms of the welfare state, he simply promised to prevent Democrats from taking them to excess. His slogan: compassionate conservatism. What that meant, Bill Clinton observed, was “I’ll give you everything the Democrats are giving you, just more cheaply.”
For a year, Romney has tried to run as Reagan. He’s tried to show the Tea Party that he’s as ideologically hostile to government as they are. To impress his party’s right-flank, he even chose Paul Ryan, a man eager for a frontal assault on the most popular aspects of the American safety net. But tonight, Romney ditched that strategy and repeatedly softened the ideological contrasts with Obama. Obama wants to spend more on education. So do I! Obama’s against unaffordable tax cuts for the rich that will increase the deficit? So am I! And because Obama didn’t sharply emphasize the contrasts, Romney’s strategy worked.
Perhaps the most important moment of the debate was when Obama conceded that he and Romney basically agree on Social Security, the issue on which Democrats have been defenestrating Republicans for 30 years. All summer, the Democrats have been painting Romney as a right-wing radical, but tonight Obama let him pose as an amiable grandpa just seeking to tinker around the edges to correct some of Obama’s mistakes.
Romney did what Michael Dukakis tried to do in 1988: He made the race less about ideology than about competence. He jettisoned almost everything about the Republican Party’s economic agenda that Americans don’t like and essentially told Americans: There’s no big philosophical disagreement here. The president just hasn’t gotten results for the country so why not give me a try. He succeeded into turning the race from an ideological choice back into a referendum on what kind of job Obama has done.
Romney’s finally doing what Democrats always feared he would: run as the moderate he once was. Between now and the next debate, Obama is going to have to figure out how to run against that guy.