WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's debate message has become his campaign strategy. In Denver, he was a bipartisan dealmaker, concerned about the lives of real people, especially when they inhabit battleground states. A day later, he apologized for his 47 percent comment — which should have been done weeks before. In that same interview, he went on to talk about social mobility: "The gap between the rich and the poor has gotten larger. ... I want the poor to get into the middle class." His stump speech now features populist themes. Romney has discovered his inner centrist.
After considering their range of options, critics have chosen apoplexy. Democratic officials accused Romney of "outright fabricating" and "basically lying." David Axelrod called Romney "Gantry-esque" — a charge of exceptional viciousness, hidden by literary obscurity. (Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry was an alcoholic, abusive, sacrilegious fraud.) President Obama, after recovering from the Denver altitude, set out this challenge: "If you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth."
So is Romney being "dishonest" (Axelrod) or tacking a bit toward the middle, as presidential candidates often do? Is this readjustment fraudulent, or merely later than expected?
For the most part, Romney has shifted his tone and emphasis, not his policy. All along, he has proposed tax reform, not merely tax cuts. He never opposed all federal financial regulations — though this is not the kind of thing a Republican emphasizes in the primaries. In these cases, Romney hasn't changed his plans. He has merely refuted caricatures of his plans. You can hardly blame a man for refusing to be a straw man.
On a few issues in the debate, Romney's transformation seemed a little too eager. Maintaining education funding seems at odds with his proposal for a 5 percent, across-the-board cut in federal discretionary spending — though it wouldn't be that hard to make up $3.5 billion in education cuts elsewhere in a $425 billion domestic discretionary budget, if this is Romney's intention. His health plan would not guarantee insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions in every case. But it would heavily subsidize the purchase of health insurance, and guarantee that anyone with coverage could move from insurance to insurance without facing pre-existing condition exclusions.
These claims are within the bounds of normal, unscripted imprecision during a debate. For the most part, Romney was attempting to present his moderate conservative agenda in a favorable light to independent voters. I'd prefer that agenda to be more creative, particularly in promoting equal opportunity and social mobility. But it is not deception to emphasize the most appealing portions of your proposals. It is the nature of political persuasion.
The accusation of lying shuts down all genuine policy debate. Romney promises, for example, a 20 percent, across-the-board reduction in income taxes, with lost revenues made up by economic growth and cutting loopholes and deductions for the wealthy. I suspect these sources, in the end, would not be sufficient. So you can either close some loopholes for the upper middle class, or reduce the 20 percent tax cut to a lower level (a prospect one of Romney's economic advisers has raised). This is worth a debate. But such a debate is rendered impossible by the questioning of motives. This is a genuine disagreement, not attempted fraud. Romney is making an argument, not engaged in a plot. And a refusal to engage the argument indicates an inability to engage the argument seriously or successfully.
Those who urge Obama in the next debate to call Romney a liar, or close to it, are doing him no favors. It is one thing to do this on the stump, where taunting and mocking result in applause. It is another thing to try this tactic face to face, where it nearly always seems desperate and small. Because of the manner of Obama's failure in the first debate — by being too passive — he will need to be more aggressive in the next. But that is a difficult trait to calibrate, particularly in a president prone to public petulance. A small turn of the faucet and the cold water suddenly scalds.
Anger in the Obama camp is understandable. Romney seems comfortable with his new tone — almost relieved to be back into Massachusetts mode. He is better positioned to appeal to independents in Ohio and elsewhere. And Obama is still reacting to Romney, not the other way around. Days after they parted in Denver, Romney is still dominating the debate.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.