WASHINGTON — For more than a year Mitt Romney has criticized President Obama from afar. Hopping from state to state, from rally to rally, he has slammed the president over his policies and called for a more conservative path for the country.
Romney finally got his chance Wednesday night to face down the president in person, and he appeared to make the most of it with a direct critique of Obama’s first term that was cogent and sharp.
All the pressure was on the challenger to perform well after a recent slide in the polls, and he did. Without taking any major risks, committing any unforced blunders, or delivering any rehearsed zingers, Romney struck an effective balance between attacks on Obama’s record and a broad rendering of his own leadership style.
At the same time, his policy proposals on taxes and health care remained mostly vague, even as they reflected a strikingly more moderate shift by Romney in the last two weeks.
In confrontations that were shown in split-screen on television, Romney often turned to Obama and recited negative economic statistics, as if he were a Harvard Business School professor critiquing the performance of a struggling student.
In one of his strongest moments of the debate, Romney faced Obama and declared, “Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it with the American people who are struggling today.”
Obama is enjoying a lead in the polls in swing states, which may have encouraged him to adopt a curiously cautious approach to the debate. He was understated and technical in his answers. The tactic allowed Romney plenty of room to pound his message while rarely taking the defensive. Obama never once mentioned Bain Capital, for instance, or Romney’s call to let Detroit go bankrupt, or the Republican’s repeated flip-flops and contortions on policy issues that have been a hallmark of his political career in Massachusetts and on the national stage.
Romney made a concerted effort to shore up a key weakness by demonstrating more empathy for everyday Americans. He described how he and his wife, Ann, have been approached by parents and spouses who have been battered by the economy. He defended Social Security, education spending, and insurance coverage for preexisting conditions. He rattled off statistics that he said showed middle-class families have struggled in the last four years, while repeatedly slamming Obama for cutting Medicare spending to pay for the president’s health care plan and investing $90 billion in green energy jobs that Romney implied was wasted.
But Romney also evaded specifics of his own plans at numerous junctures. Romney would not detail how he would pass big cuts in tax rates for the wealthy while not raising taxes on the middle class. He would not say what elements of the Dodd-Frank financial industry overhaul he would reinstate after repealing it. And he would not say how he would retool the American health care system after rolling back the president’s health plan.
“At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they’re going to be too good?’’ Obama said. “Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”
Obama has enjoyed a surge in polls after he won the the battle of the party conventions — when the candidates sparred in highly scripted affairs from a distance, over two weeks, from Tampa and from Charlotte, N.C. Wednesday night it was time for hand-to-hand combat. By the time the candidates strode onto the stage Wednesday night, intense pressure had built on Romney to deliver a stellar performance.
Could the former Massachusetts governor come across as a clear and confident leader? Or would he lapse into the calculating, test-marketed version of himself, the one who sometimes seems to be groping for what he believes might be the right answer? Viewers mostly got the former, Graham Wilson, the chairman of the political science department at Boston University, said.
“I thought it was a really good night for Romney,” he said. “I thought he seemed livelier and crisper, and more forceful, and Obama seemed reticent and even hesitant in his presentation.’’
“It gave Romney the Etch-a-Sketch moment he was looking for,’’ Wilson added, referring to a comment by Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom that the candidate would start with a fresh canvas — like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch — after the primary.
While the debate veered toward the wonkish, and memorable lines may not have been uttered, Romney’s ability to stand with the president marked what his campaign will try to say is a turning point.Continued...