Mitt Romney’s Political Artistry

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Nobody ever “wins” a presidential debate. You only ever really win a debate when one side admits defeat, and that never happens.

Or almost never.

With their fainthearted defense of their boss last Wednesday night, the members of the president’s team acknowledged that Mitt Romney had defeated Barack Obama, who performed like a distracted champion who had underestimated the challenger and hadn’t trained for the fight.

If there is one moment in the debate that, for me, captured Romney’s superior performance, it came on the discussion of regulation. In this political climate, that’s a discussion that should favor the president.

But Romney opened by saying: “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation. As a businessperson … I needed (regulations) there.”

“At the same time,” Romney continued, “regulation can become excessive. … During the president’s term, you’ve seen regulation become excessive, and it’s hurt the economy.”

Romney’s message was: Regulation is essential but sometimes excessive, and I know the difference. With this, he occupied the center.

Obama responded: “The reason we have been in such (an) enormous economic crisis was prompted by reckless behavior. … We stepped in and had the toughest reforms on Wall Street since the 1930s. We said … ‘Banks, you’ve got to raise your capital requirements. You can’t engage in some of this risky behavior.'”

“It appears,” Obama continued, “we’ve got some agreement that a marketplace, to work, has to have some regulation, but in the past, Gov. Romney has said he just wants to repeal Dodd-Frank. … So the question is, Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?”

Romney answered:

“I’d have regulation. But I wouldn’t designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That’s one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. It wasn’t thought through properly. We need to get rid of that provision because it’s killing regional and small banks.”

Then Romney said: “You say we were giving mortgages to people who weren’t qualified. That’s exactly right. It’s one of the reasons for the great financial calamity we had. And so Dodd-Frank correctly says we need to have qualified mortgages … except they didn’t ever go on to define what a qualified mortgage was. It’s been two years. We don’t know what a qualified mortgage is yet. So banks are reluctant to make loans. … It’s hurt the housing market. … It’s not that Dodd-Frank always was wrong with too much regulation. Sometimes they didn’t come out with a clear regulation.”

Analysis: Obama’s position was that regulation is good. Romney said regulation is essential, but he also said that some regulation is excessive, that some of it is out of date and that some of it is not clear. Then he gave two examples in which provisions of Dodd-Frank hurt small banks, consumers and the economy. Was Romney right? If not, it was up to Obama to say so, and he did not.

This exchange typified Romney’s win. He came off as more nuanced, balanced and informed than the president — a sensible problem-solver in the center.

But it takes some research to fully appreciate Romney’s political artistry in Denver. He changed not only his tone and approach but also, in some cases, his proposals. In that sense, he left Obama swinging sometimes at a target that wasn’t there.

Romney did it with his new talk on Dodd-Frank, but he did it more notably on his tax plan. He said in the primaries: “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent.” On his website, his plan is to “make (a) permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates.”

But in the debate, Romney said: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.” He also said, “My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit.” How can these three steps all be possible? Only by ending tax deductions or limiting tax breaks.

Romney recently suggested capping tax breaks at $17,000. On Wednesday during the debate, he changed that suggestion, saying, “Make up a number — 25,000, 50,000.”

These new numbers prompted the Tax Policy Center‘s Howard Gleckman to say, “For all the words we heard about Gov. Romney’s tax proposal last night, we know less than we did going in.”

So part of the Obama (Debate) Recovery Act will have to be a sharper effort to pin down Romney. What is he proposing — a tax cut, a rate cut, revenue-neutral tax reform? How does he get there? Why won’t he say?

It’s one thing to be secretive about the taxes you pay; it’s another to be secretive about the taxes you’re asking everyone else to pay.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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