In the fruit of Mitt Romney’s debate triumph may lie the seeds of disaster. He ably countered the Democrats’ narrative that he was another wealthy businessman, indifferent to average folks concerns. But in the process he may have ploughed the ground for a far more devastating counter-attack: Romney the salesman, a slick, pitchman, who will say whatever necessary to close the deal.
Romney rebooted his public image. In front of almost 70 million viewers he morphed into a smart, pragmatic problem-solver; a moderate former governor of a Democratic state eager to accelerate the nation’s dismal economic growth on behalf of the middle class. His balanced approach to taxes, regulation and deficits were designed to promote jobs and incomes for average Americans. Or so he asserted.
This is not exactly what the President and millions of dollars of Democratic ad money have been saying about him. Their right-wing tycoon was nowhere to be seen. The money manipulator who didn’t pay his fair share of taxes, who cost workers their jobs and who cared more for profits than people never showed up at the debate.
This transformation left Obama bewildered. The President’s talking points, as he wistfully indicated, were aimed at another guy.
In a campaign a candidate is never just talking about himself. His presentation of self is also a weapon against his opponent. For example, the appearance of “America” in the last two Republican nominees’ slogans is a comment on a Democratic opponent having a very foreign name of Barack Obama.
Similarly, being a free-market entrepreneur attacking a cancerous socialist government taking away individual liberties was red meat in the Republican primaries. But not so helpful with undecided voters in the key states still up for grabs.
Romney’s current emphasis on competence and balance is an attack on the incompetence and imbalance of the incumbent. The New Romney will make government more efficient, its policies more effective. Repealing Obamacare now means taking away the bad – threats to Medicare, while keeping the good – coverage of pre-existing conditions. Regulating Wall Street is no longer a left-wing bureaucratic nightmare. If done right it is necessary part of modern markets.
But in transforming himself, Romney opens himself up to another familiar narrative of business. He is the salesman: the good looking gentleman at the front door, with a pious smile, a shine on his shoes and a practiced authenticity in selling what you didn’t know you didn’t need.
The sneaking suspicion is that Romney the Salesman will embrace whatever argument makes him money.
When privately talking to a group of financial donors in Florida he will denounce 47 per cent of the public as moochers dependent on the government and, of course, the wealthy taxpayers in his audience. When these remarks become public, he will just as sincerely renounce them as “completely wrong”.
The tax cuts for upper income Americans he promoted earlier in the year have now morphed into rearranging the tax code to remove loopholes so that lower rates are balanced by decreased tax advantages. Be assured that none of this will increase the deficit. How one can promise tax relief without actually reducing taxes has not yet been explained.
And this is where the president’s own narrative should point. Being president is something more than telling people what they want to hear. Making hard decisions on spending, taxes, foreign policy and between competing interest groups also means looking out for the nation. A salesman who can adjust to the whims of a changing marketplace is not a leader. The US also requires judgment aimed at the public interest.
Curiously, Romney’s flaws have revealed Obama’s own shortcomings as president. The president’s failed attempts to rise above Washington’s partisan divisions have blocked his goals and compromised his programmes. Even with Democratic majorities his economic stimulus programme was inadequate for the brutal recession because he hoped for Republican support; his healthcare reform accommodated medical interest groups but raised costs and reduced coverage; the law to limit climate change failed because Obama wouldn’t push Democratic senators to resist local fossil fuel interests opposing any restraints.
Romney may yet provide a useful reminder of how the next president can fail, whoever he is.
Gary Wasserman is professor of government at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Qatar. He received his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University. He is the author of The Basics of American Politics (14th ed) and Politics in Action (2012). He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and Political Science Quarterly.