Among the alibis being promoted by Democrats in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s triumph in last night’s debate is that President Obama was unprepared for the Republican’s shift to the center. The president’s campaign rests on class warfare tactics in which Romney is portrayed not only as a heartless plutocrat but also as seeking to loot the middle class in order to give gifts to his fellow millionaires via tax cuts. Therefore, when Romney asserted in the debate that he had no plans to cut taxes on the rich or enact tax cuts that would increase the deficit, Democrats argue that the former law professor who now presides over the country was so flummoxed by the deception that he could offer no response.
It isn’t likely that many people, even those most devoted to Obama’s cause, will buy that excuse. A better explanation might be that once he decided to eschew the personal attacks on Romney that have been the hallmark of his campaign, the president was left with nothing to fall back on, since he is either uninterested in defending his record in office, or unable to do so. However, this line of inquiry does raise the question of how far to the center did Romney really shift in the debate? The answer is quite a bit, but no one should expect a Republican base that long distrusted Romney to abandon him. A year ago, when Romney was competing for the hearts and minds of the conservative base, his sidestep away from across-the-board tax cuts might have been fatal. But on the night when he reminded the right that he is the only person who can help them defeat Obama, it isn’t likely many are going to question his judgment.
As the New York Times editorial page griped this morning (in a piece that stubbornly refused to admit that Romney had won the debate), Republicans are in favor of retaining all the Bush-era tax cuts, as well as ending levies like the estate and gift taxes. Romney also believes in changing the system to one that would result in across-the-board reductions in taxes. The Times is so stuck in its liberal ideological mindset that, like the president, it sees any increase in the amount of money that the state does not confiscate from taxpayers as a gift from the government. It also refuses to understand what Romney clearly gets: that raising taxes — especially in hard economic times — doesn’t always lead to increased revenue.
However, it is fair to say that Romney’s pledges last night raise the very real possibility that once in the White House he may not be following a Tea Party line on taxes. Romney is, as most Republicans already knew, no ideologue. He may speak the language of conservatives when it comes to basic principles of small government and individual rights, but he is also a pragmatist who would sacrifice a hard line on the issues in order to solve a problem like the deficit. That’s why many extreme conservatives and libertarians predicted he would be part of the federal deficit problem rather than the solution.
Such moderation would not have helped him win the Republican nomination, but it is probably very useful as he seeks to win the political center in the remaining weeks before the election. Call it “etch-a-sketch” or smart politics, but the not-so-subtle pivot to the center has left liberals impotently gnashing their teeth.
Obama’s insistence that Romney’s plan is a $5 trillion tax break for the rich has been exposed as fiction by fact checkers. Romney can also argue that his preferred version of tax reform would eliminate deductions that will, in effect, raise taxes on many of the rich because it would create a fairer system.
If conservatives connect the dots between his Denver pledges, some might be inclined to cry foul over having been gulled into nominating a man who will not adopt an absolutist stand on taxes. But don’t expect many on the right to complain about this today. Romney’s debate victory gives his party’s base a reason to hope that Obama can be defeated and set the stage for the repeal of ObamaCare. Nothing he says now is likely to make them do anything that might increase the president’s chances of re-election. That means an unprepared and arrogant Obama had better get used to the idea that Romney is playing to win.