The Winning Answer
Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Almost 25 minutes into last Wednesday night’s presidential debate, it was already clear Mitt Romney was doing better than expected, and that Barack Obama was a bit flat. But it wasn’t yet obvious at the end of the debate’s first segment that the debate would produce a decisive winner.
Then moderator Jim Lehrer moved from taxes to a discussion of “what to do about the federal deficit, the federal debt.” Mitt Romney spoke first. His two-minute answer was the inflection point in the debate. After that, he was on a roll—a conservative roll. And President Obama would be reduced to an ineffectual defensive crouch—a liberal crouch.
Romney’s statement deserves to be reproduced in full:
The Republican presidential candidate—the conservative presidential candidate—packed a lot into this two-minute answer.
• Romney was willing to argue morality, not just money. His argument on the deficit was made on behalf of future generations against the self-indulgence of the present one. Romney didn’t quote Edmund Burke, but he might have: Society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Romney claimed his Burkean reform conservatism isn’t only more prudent than Obama’s baby boomer self-indulgent liberalism. It’s also more just.
• Romney made the case against raising taxes because doing so would undermine economic growth. Romney has spoken a lot during the campaign about jobs and about small business creating jobs—but now he nodded to the broader Reaganite case for economic growth as key to our general social well-being.
• Romney promised to repeal Obama-care—the example of expensive and intrusive big government social engineering, hostility to which triggered the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican sweep of 2010. No amount of propaganda and browbeating has made Obama’s signature legislation any more popular today than it was then. But the repeal of Obama-care had been strangely absent from Romney’s advertising, and not emphasized in his core message. No longer, one trusts.
• Romney, amused by Obama’s embrace of “Obama-care,” replied briskly: “Good. So I’ll get rid of that.” But not just that. Romney emphasized he was willing to put even the beloved Big Bird on the chopping block. The Obama campaign and all the liberal elite’s horses and men and women leapt to Big Bird’s defense. They know Americans like Big Bird, and they assume Americans are so stupid as to think everything they like deserves a government subsidy. With a manly and candid conservatism, Romney said no. He did so not in the spirit of Oscar the Grouch (though The Weekly Standard is rather fond of Oscar the Grouch), but in the good-natured spirit of, say, Chris Christie, explaining government can no longer afford things just because we like them, if they aren’t essential.
So: The Burkean case against trillion-dollar deficits. The Reaganite case for broad-based economic growth. The Tea Party-infused case against Obama-care. The Chris Christie-like case against unnecessary government spending.
Most of the rest of the debate consisted of Romney elaborating on these themes. They did the job Wednesday night. Properly developed and elaborated over the next month, they can do the job on Election Day.